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Local police say enforcement has changed during pandemic

  • Todd Muilenberg Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard at a political campaign event this winter. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/20/2020 7:10:42 PM

While you may see more police cruisers out on traffic enforcement detail these days, the officers would rather not pull you over.

Here in the Ledger-Transcript coverage area, police chiefs say calls for service are down, as is traffic, but they are remaining visible and are enforcing the laws.

In Hancock, Police Chief Andrew Wood said overall calls for service are down and police are focused on traffic enforcement and remaining visible.

“Basically, we are being more selective on our motor vehicle enforcement,” Wood said, adding when motorists are pulled over precautions against contamination are taken. “I’ve told the [officers] they have to use social distancing with masks and everything.”

Meetings with town officials have been taking place via video conferencing. And when police respond to medical calls they wait to be invited closer by EMTs.

“Things are a little bit different when we do medical calls. We do a lot of medical calls with our fire department and don’t go into the scene, of course, unless when asked to,” Wood said. “It’s more of a being cautious and keeping as little contact with people as possible.”

However, Wood is adamant that laws are still being enforced. “If there is an absolute law enforcement issue we’ll deal with it.”

But said his department is less likely to pull over a driver in a car with a broken taillight.

“We don’t want to have a huge amount of contact with a lot of people, unfortunately, it’s what we do. But chasing the broken tail lights is not something we are prioritizing for now,” Wood said. “We are still going to enforce the laws. We are just going to be a little bit more selective in how we are going to enforce those laws. If you’re speeding we are going to enforce the speeding laws … That is what the law is for – reduced accidents and crashes.”

Police are using hand sanitizer and face masks and residents are asked to call the police station to make reports as opposed to showing up at the police station.

His department would also prefer not to take anyone into custody right now, favoring the issuance of a paper summons to court as opposed to a physical arrest, Wood said, but suspects have been taken into custody.

“We’ve taken people into custody. I know, I personally had a DWI arrest that I had to deal with and you just take more precautions that you might not take,” Wood said. “We’ve been trained to take these precautions throughout our careers anyway, to minimize what we are exposed to.”

Jaffrey Police Chief Todd Muilenberg echoed Wood saying calls for service have been down through March and April and police are being more selective with traffic stops.

“Our call volume is actually down right now, It’s fairly quiet,” Muilenberg said. “We are stopping cars less frequently, mainly only pulling over cars for the main issues, maybe using lights to warn other vehicles.”

If a motorist is driving over the speed limit, but only by a little, an officer may flash their lights at the driver and if the driver slows down and acknowledges the police officer the motorist is typically not being stopped, he said. During normal times, Muilenberg said, in such a case the officer would typically pull the driver over and perhaps issue a verbal or written warning.

Now when there is a need to pull a motorist over, “We are wearing a mask and gloves, especially if we are issuing paperwork,” he said. “As long as we are keeping people in line and they are respecting the speeds that is what we are doing.”

And while calls for service are down, Muilenberg said, it is too soon to say crime is down.

“We are also not sure of the things that haven’t been reported yet,” he said.

The drop in calls and crime came in March, he said. “pretty quickly after the fear started to escalate.”

“And there are less people driving on the roads, so we have had fewer car accidents and fewer vehicle stops,” he said.

The Jaffrey Police Department had 21 arrests in March 2019 and 22 arrests this March, according to numbers supplied by Muilenberg. When comparing this year to last, April did see a drop with 26 arrests in 2019 and 17 in 2020. Muilenberg said without a detailed analysis of March and April 2019 compared to those months this year he would attribute the drop in arrests to “a combination of less vehicular traffic and fewer calls for service.”

He said he did anticipate a rise in domestic violence calls, but said, his department has not seen that, at least for now.

Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard said that his department saw a drop in domestic violence calls, at first, but has now seen an uptick.

“Initially those numbers were down early on. That is beginning to change. So that is concerning to us,” Guinard said. “As time has gone on from the beginning of this thing we are starting to see changes in some people’s behavior. … We are starting to see a lot of stress and frustration in people that has had an effect on people’s behavior overall.”

While police would prefer to avoid taking anyone into physical custody right now, they are still enforcing the law and arresting people, he said. Last week a man was arrested and charged with felony-level domestic violence assault for allegedly choking and beating a woman, Guinard said. The man was taken to the police station in a police cruiser, and was booked and held till he was transferred to the Hillsborough County House of Corrections in Manchester, he said. The man’s bail hearing will take place in the Superior Court via video conference this week, he said. Guinard said police properly protected themselves during the arrest and then cleaned the cruiser, booking room and holding cell with disinfectant after the arrest.

“Officers have been issued masks and are carrying gloves in their vehicles all the time. They have been issued safety goggles as well,” Guinard said.

The pandemic has certainly not prevented any arrests, he said, although some arrests have been conducted using paperwork to avoid taking people into custody.

“Under NH law we can issue citations in lieu of arrest in certain cases,” Guinard said. “Normal practice for all agencies is not to do that all the time. There are times you want people’s photographs, you want their fingerprints.”

There are some laws, which if broken, police cannot issue paperwork and a court date instead of a physical arrest. For instance, the violation of a domestic violence restraining order or the transportation of alcoholic beverages by a minor, he said.

While the nature of police work can often be up close and personal, officers are keeping a distance of six feet when the situation allows, he said.

The closure of the courts is a concern, Guinard said, however, they are starting to see some relief with cases moving along with the filing of pleas.

“Those that are scheduled for trial have simply been put on hold until we don’t know when,” he said. “Even arraignments are a little tricky.”

Guinard also said calls of service have been down as have traffic stops.

“It does appear to be fewer crimes, in just glancing at the daily log,” he said.

An inspection sticker that may have expired back in April, more likely than not we are not going to stop somebody for that in the month of May,” Guinard said.

Dangerous driving, however, is something his officers will stop a motorist for, but added, “I’m allowing the officers to use their discretion when it comes to traffic enforcement.”

The Peterborough Police Department saw arrests remain relatively the same when comparing police logs with 23 arrests in March both 2019 and this year and 22 arrests in April 2019 and 20 arrests this year.

The Hancock Police Department had few arrests in March and April of 2019 because the department was down two full-time officers, Wood said, so he provided arrest numbers from 2018 as well. Wood said in March 2018 the department made 10 arrests, one in 2019 and two this year, 2020. For March the department made 10 arrests in April 2018, no arrests in April 2019, and three arrests this year, 2020.

The Rindge Police Department saw a 50 percent decline in March arrests over last year with 8 arrests last year to 4 this year. But April remained relatively the same in terms of arrests, with 8 arrests this year and 9 arrests in 2019, according to department logs available online.

The New Ipswich Police Department saw arrest numbers remain relatively the same with two arrests in March 2019 and three this March. And the same amount of arrests, four, in April of 2019 and 2020, according to New Ipswich police logs available online.

Small towns like Francestown had no arrests listed in their police log for March and April both this year and last.

“Francestown is a small community and we have slow periods and we have busy periods. Of course, it’s the early, early summer period and we tend to be busier when the neighboring ski area is open,” Francestown Police Chief Michael Dowd said. “Being such a small community, arrests are infrequent. We have not had a situation where we have had an arrest during this pandemic.”

Dowd said police cruisers are regularly disinfected and officers wear masks and gloves when interacting with the public. His officers will pull motorists over for speeding or causing danger to others, he said. “We of course, we exercise discretion depending on the situation and of course if we have probable cause to arrest we will do so,” Dowd said.

Guinard said his department is “encouraging people to communicate via telephone and email and we are only doing meetings with people face-to-face only when it is absolutely necessary.”

Guinard said part of his job now is understanding what is required of his department, the community and businesses throughout the pandemic. “I spend a lot of time digesting the numerous emergency orders and answering a lot of questions to people about the emergency orders.” Especially for local businesses such as restaurants at this point, he said. “What they should and should do and what they can and cannot do.”

“On a more positive note, we have had several requests to lead processions for driveby birthday parties, for primarily children. Whatever we can do to lift people’s spirits and keep them happy,” Guinard said. “Help them work through this.”

Muilenberg said his department remains visible despite the precautions put into place and is focused on making a positive impact during this time and ready to assist the community in any way needed. Last week, the officers assisted the school district with traffic control for a teacher’s parade that included 43 cars and school buses.

“It was a really positive experience. A lot of people out on the street waving and smiling,” Muilenberg said.

Dowd said Francestown residents have been compliant with the stay-at-home order and practice social distancing.

“All and all it’s been very, very positive. It’s been a cooperative effort,” he said. “We can’t predict when this is going to end. Hopefully, there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.”

 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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