Town, police, citizens hold listening session on future of policing in Peterborough

  • A screenshot of Tuesday night's Zoom listening session with the Town of Peterborough and citizens calling for reform and transparency in the police department. Courtesy image

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/24/2020 8:07:30 AM

The Town of Peterborough held an community listening session Tuesday night during which residents and Police Chief Scott Guinard discussed the status and future of policing in Our Town. 

Nearly every speaker on the Zoom call prefaced their comments by thanking Chief Guinard and assuring him they knew he was nothing like the police officers in the spotlight around the country for racist brutality. However, several residents of color shared personal stories and thoughts that contradicted Peterborough’s perception as a town where racism and implicit bias simply could not happen, and informed listeners that despite the quality work local officers have generally exhibited, the structure and culture of policing revolves around an untenable, fear-based power structure. 

Doug Sutherland, a Black man from Hancock who runs Brantwood Camp, said he couldn’t be happier with the way local police and first responders deal with emergency situations. But just as so many other Black people around the country, he lives with the fear that any vehicle stop or random police interaction could end with his death – even in a town where he is familiar with and appreciative of the department. 

“I don’t know, if I get pulled over, who is coming to my car door,” Sutherland said. “I don’t know, if there are police lights outside my house, who is going to be knocking on my door. And that scares me...Even if I know who you are, I don’t know what mood you’re going to be in that day, and especially in the current atmosphere, I don’t know if you’re going to be bitter...about what’s happened to police officers in other parts of the country. Am I going to bear the brunt of that?...It’s not as easy as doing what you say. There is fear out there. Not of you, but of the institution. The institution scares people. If I don’t do what you say, I could die. Not ‘I could get in trouble,’ not ‘I would go to jail,’ but I could die. And I think that’s what a lot of people who look like me are worried about, and that’s what they’re scared of, and they will continue to be scared because of what’s been happening.”

Several more of the 70 or so people on the Zoom call shared their stories of being questioned on the street at night, feeling unsafe around police officers, being dismissed when calling for help, being pulled over and harassed for a broken taillight and being too scared to report it. 

“The vigilance required for people of color is exhausting,” said Grace Aldrich of Dublin. “It creates a different feeling of home. It’s hard to feel at home when you’re constantly vigilant.”

Coming face-to-face with the realities of everyday life as a person of color was “eye-opening,” in so many words, to the town officials watching.

“My heart hurts right now,” said Select Board member and Community and Economic Development Coordinator Karen Hatcher at the conclusion of the meeting.

“If you’re not struck by what you heard in this meeting, then you’re not a human,” said Select Board member Bill Taylor. “...I’m happy for this conversation, I’m happy for the future and where we go from here.”

The prevailing proposal from many who spoke at the meeting and at recent protests and gatherings is some form of defunding the police. It’s a concept that on its face is shocking to some, but has gained traction nationwide and found success in cities where it has been implemented. Planning Board member and state representative Ivy Vann gave a succinct breakdown of what that would look like.

“One of the primary tenets of defunding the police is not that we’re going to starve the police of funds, but that we need to reallocate funds so that the police don’t have to be everything for every incident for everybody,” Vann said, before asking Chief Guinard to consider what current police responsibilities might be better handled by someone who’s not an armed policeman.

The concept requires rethinking the day-to-day role of a police officer – both from the department’s perspective, and the public’s. When there’s a threat of physical violence, a crisis situation, an armed robbery in progress, and so on, an armed police officer would likely need to be called to the scene. But for incidents like welfare checks, mental health issues, non-violent activities and things as simple as dogs on the loose or lost earrings, an armed police officer might be replaced by a social worker or something like a community resource officer. Eliminating those responsibilities and eliminating things like military-style equipment or other budgetary items not likely needed in a small town would mean fewer hours spent policing, and the money saved in those areas would be reallocated to social services to create a support system.

As both college student/activist Anna McGuiness and mental health professional Dennis Calcutt pointed out, some of the people who’d benefit the most from this approach aren’t privileged enough to participate in a Tuesday night Zoom call from their easy chairs. People who the system is failing or has already failed – the homeless, the mentally ill, those marginalized and eventually criminalized – aren’t getting the resources they need.

Planning Board member Sarah Steinberg Heller pointed out that Peterborough’s progressive mindset makes it the perfect testing ground for an exemplary rethinking of the police department. 

“Peterborough likes to do things extra shiny, extra new, extra special, so why don’t we spearhead this for the whole region and maybe set a standard for the whole state about how we can do that,” Heller said. “I think we need more transparency about how we do this, because it’s a matter of life or death for some people.” 

The town considered Tuesday’s discussion a listening session, meaning they’d take questions and hear comments but weren’t bound to answer them immediately. Knowing he wouldn’t get an answer Tuesday night, resident Zach Green asked his question anyway.

“I really want to hear from Chief Guinard, from his heart, from where you stand in this moment, what does ‘defund’ mean to you? What does it say to you? Do you fear for the future of policing or do you accept this as an open invitation to changing and making our community better?”

At the conclusion of the call, Chief Guinard said he’d taken five pages of notes during the call and looked forward to working with the rest of the town officials on steps to address the concerns raised therein. Hatcher said they’d work to answer all submitted questions directly and that residents would be informed of next steps and another similar forum in the near future.

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