NHCJE and partners Seacoast NAACP, Greater Manchester & Nashua NAACP Branches, BLM Seacoast, and BLM Manchester, with production partners at NHPR and NHPBS brought together members of the BIPOC community in New Hampshire and surrounding states to discuss the Culture of Policing
The evening of March 6th was a full house at the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law’s Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership & Public Service in Concord, NH, where more than 50 people gathered for a Community Conversation on the Culture of Policing, and 36 others joined online. After a moment of reconnecting and conversations in the lobby, the enthusiastic crowd settled into the auditorium.
Anthony Poore, President of the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity (NHCJE), explained that the tragic events that took place in January 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee, were what prompted these partners to organize this Community Conversation, together with the organization’s Board Members, and NH Assistant Commissioner of Public Safety, Eddie Edwards:
“We hope that this conversation provides a safe forum for New Hampshire’s communities of color to 1) gather, discuss, and understand ‘how’ and ‘why’ incidents like this continue to happen across the United States; 2) discuss what can be done, from a practice and policy perspective, to ensure an incident like Memphis, Tennessee never happens in New Hampshire; and 3) aid in New Hampshire’s Communities of Color’s collective healing.” – Anthony Poore, President & CEO of NHCJE.
Aware that this would be a difficult, emotional, and potentially triggering conversation, the NHCJE invited psychotherapist Nicole Sublette to guide the audience through mindfulness and grounding exercises at the beginning and end of the session.
Panel members, from left to right: Jasmine Torres, moderator, NHPBS; Ronelle Tshiela, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester; Eddie Edwards, NH Assistant Commissioner of Public Safety; John Scippa, Director of NH Police Standards and Training; Quovella Maeweather, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE); and Tanisha Johnson, moderator, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Seacoast.
“A lot of people feel that talking to police or anyone involved in law enforcement is not going to change anything. So, why are conversations like this important?”
The first question of the evening dove right into the relevance of community conversations. Ronelle Tshiela, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester, shared her concerns that “real talks” can be discouraging, and that her fellow co-founders were skeptical about this conversation and its impact. Director of NH Police Standards and Training, John Scippa, countered that dialogue is not “one and done” and that conversations need to occur regularly throughout the resolution of issues. Quovella Maeweather, Director of Public Safety and member of NOBLE, highlighted the importance of strengthening the community’s relationships before any incident happens in New Hampshire.
One question seemed to divide the room: Is there or is there not systemic racism in New Hampshire?
When asked about how law enforcement officials of color continue to work in an environment where police violence continues to happen, Eddie Edwards, NH Assistant Commissioner of Public Safety, shared how a positive experience with a police officer during his childhood influenced his career. He added that New Hampshire, despite not being perfect, can be considered a model for the rest of the country in terms of addressing racism, a statement that some members of the audience questioned.
In response to the suggestion that New Hampshire does not have a systemic racism problem, Ronelle Tshiela, the only member of the panel who does not work in law enforcement, shared her belief that the foundations and principles of policing were built on white supremacy. From the audience, Rev. Robert Thompson, President of the Seacoast NAACP, added that policing originated from a desire to maintain control of enslaved black men, and although he agreed that New Hampshire doesn’t have issues as critical as other states, people of color are still subject to the same miscalculations and abuses in the Granite State.
As a microphone traveled among audience members, a different viewpoint was brought up by James McKim, President of the Manchester NAACP, called for the use of common definitions to describe racism and systemic racism. In fact, he considered the system to be founded on racism and to have racist outcomes, but he doesn’t think this means the system itself is full of racists. On the other hand, Grace Kindeke, Program Coordinator at American Friends Service Committee, looks at systems from a sociological perspective and believes outcomes are as crucial to the definition of a system as policies and procedures.
Indeed, there is a disparity in arrests, charges, and incarcerations based on race in New Hampshire, where 7% of black people are behind bars while black people represent about 2% of the total state population.
Why aren’t we collecting more data, and is this a helpful practice?
Another topic discussed in the Community Conversation was the impact of data. Assistant Commissioner Edwards highlighted that one of the recommendations from the New Hampshire Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (LEAC) is to collect more data, especially relating to traffic stops. Panelist Quovella Maeweather, who is also the Public Safety Director of the Franklin, NJ Township Police Department, gave the example of the work being done there, where it is mandated that every “pull-over” needs to be documented and bodycams have to be verified by supervisors.
At this moment, several members of the audience and the panel shared personal stories about racial profiling in interactions with law enforcement. This raised the topic of reporting incidents and negative experiences and trusting that they will be looked into. Reporting is necessary for corrective action to be implemented, as it finds claims of misbehavior and creates a record. However, the overall response in the room showed that there is a gap in trust between communities of color and state institutions, which is furthered when incidents of excessive force and excessive action take place.
Hiring, training, supervision, and holding officers accountable are ways to correct the problems
Regarding the issue of law enforcement misconduct and breakdown of trust, John Scippa shared new recommendations from LEAC about hiring, such as maintaining high hiring standards and providing ongoing training, which are important to address problems in law enforcement. Most importantly, he added that supervising officers and holding them accountable by implementing appropriate discipline is essential.
Nonetheless, Claire Holston, who has been working with Director Scippa and Assistant Commissioner Edwards on implicit bias training, shared how difficult it is to get police officers to sign up for training, which might be due to the widespread mindset that New Hampshire law enforcement does not have any problem. In agreement, Andres Mejas, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice for the SAU16, added that the narrative has to change and that as long as New Hampshire continues to see bias in law enforcement as a distant problem, it will not be fixed.
Another topic linked to training – or lack thereof – is how people of color are often discriminated against and misdiagnosed in episodes of mental health issues. To this point, Director Scippa informed the group there are plans to enhance the current Crisis Intervention Training offered at the recruit training academy, and trauma-informed policing was briefly addressed.
People responded positively to this first Community Conversation
With an engaged and involved audience, NHCJE’s first Community Conversation covered lots of ground relating to the culture of policing. From systemic racism, to the representation of people of color in law enforcement, to implicit bias training, trauma-informed responses, and data collection, the forum provided a safe setting for a difficult but important conversation. And, although there was plenty of room for debate and different viewpoints, by the end of the session one thing was unanimous: To make sure events like those that happened in Memphis, Tennessee, do not take place in New Hampshire, we must acknowledge the disparities in law enforcement and how these disproportionately affected black people.
An online survey at the end of the event showed that the majority of the respondents believe the session met its goals. Some 90% of the people who responded to the survey said that there should be future sessions to continue the conversation that began with the session on March 6.