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January 02. 2013 11:48PM

Manchester police chief seeing the need for mental health system improvements


Manchester Police Chief David Mara, at the Part 1 Crimes Statistics Board, speaks about the year of 2012 for Manchester's crime, in between boxes, as the department moves to a new building in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - Manchester Police Chief David Mara likens the start of a new year to a smooth beach on a summer morning, after the waves have washed away all the marks and debris of the previous day's activities.

Mara retains the memories of the preceding year, but the new year presents an opportunity to make changes where needed and continue doing what has worked.

One of this year's changes is the new headquarters building at 405 Valley St. Mara said the new building gives him much-needed space and equipment for his officers and support staff, plus something he has long wanted, space within the building to meet and partner with city residents.

While he has been able to meet with groups at the Michael Briggs PAL building, the room on the first floor of the new building is important because it is at headquarters. "We want to continue the outreach," said Mara. "We want to work together."

Building community ties is a big part of Mara's philosophy of policing, and he said the near-tragedy of March 24, when Officer Daniel Doherty was shot and critically wounded by a man he was chasing, showed him that the community supports the police department.

There are exceptions, people with legitimate complaints, he said. But for the most part: "There was a reaffirmation of support." He was also impressed by the way the men and women of the department pulled together. "The spirit, it's uplifting," said Mara.

He is pleased that technology is helping another goal. "We made a great effort to lower the crime rate," he said. "We use new technology where we can find it."

The computer system tracks crimes and their locations. With the assistance of the department's crime analyst, departmental resources can be focused. "We have the ability to know when and where. We take advantage of that," said Mara.

He said the public can also track crime in their neighborhoods through the crime data site on the Manchester Police Department website.

Mara said the department is now testing a program that uses a person's iris for identification. He said it can provide better tracking of sex offenders.

The new system for electronic tracking of items pawned, in effect since August, has had an impact on arrests and stolen item recovery.

The old system required pawnshops to provide paper information within three days to the police department, which then had to have someone enter the information into a computer. Meanwhile, the item could be sold after seven days.

With the new LeadsOnline system, used by more than 2,000 police departments, pawnshop operators have to upload photos of the items and pawner and hold the item for 30 days before selling it.

Mara said the December burglary total is not yet complete, but the 11-month total of 806 is way below the previous two years: 917 in 2010 and 931 in 2011. "It's an improvement, but there's still a long way to go," he said.

The numbers are down in several other categories, including arson, theft and motor vehicle thefts, but robberies are up even without the December figures.

He said that the difference between burglary and theft is that in a burglary, the person enters the site to commit a criminal act. Theft is considered a spontaneous action.

Mara is concerned about what he sees as the reason behind most thefts. "The majority of thefts are drug-related."

The chief said the new headquarters building is designed to meet the needs of the police department for at least 30 years. He said a city Manchester's size should have 250 to 275 sworn officers.

That's not going to happen any time soon. "We can't afford it," said Mara. By the end of January, he expects the number of sworn officers to be 220. "We still have space for more officers in the long term," he said, because the authorized number is 227. New hires sometimes only cover retirees. Sometimes an officer is on the list, but is on longterm disability or is deployed in the military.

Mara said Manchester is different from many other New Hampshire communities because residents come from all over the world. "I would like to see the face of the Manchester Police Department reflect the community," said Mara, but that will take more diversity in applicants. Aside from language issues, people from some countries have a longstanding mistrust of police.

He would not consider lowering physical standards for appointment but he does believe it is appropriate to have different standards for men and women and for different age groups. "I think those standards are very important," he said. He said 21- and 40-year-olds can't expect to meet the same standards, but they need to meet their age and gender standards. They need to be fit for their age and gender.

He said any one hired since about 1990 is tested every three years, to ensure he or she meets the required standards. The new building has a well-equipped gym, but Mara said: "It's their responsibility."

Mara said policing has changed since two students killed 13 students and teachers and wounded 23 more before committing suicide at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

"Since Columbine, we are more quick to get in, to eliminate the threat," said Mara. Following the shooting at Sandy Hook School, in which 20 children and six adults were fatally shot, responding officers moved in quickly and likely prevented more deaths.

But as shocking as the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was, Mara said: "Newtown could have happened anywhere. . .It could happen happen anywhere."

Mara said he met with Manchester school officials following the Newtown shooting to reaffirm the department's commitment regarding school safety and said the next Manchester SWAT training will be at a school.

But Mara thinks quick police response to a tragedy like the school shootings, or movie theater shootings isn't the solution.

"We don't devote enough resources to mental health," said Mara. He said the mental health court, part of the Circuit Court, is a step, diverting people who have committed a nonviolent crime. "They need mental health treatment," he said, and sending them to jail doesn't solve the problem.

But mental health court doesn't reach other people who need treatment before they get in trouble, he said. More needs to be done not only to prevent tragedies like mass shootings, but also to improve the lives of those suffering from mental illness.

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Dale Vincent may be reached at dvincent@unionleader.com.


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