WOLFEBORO — The Wolfeboro Police Department’s dispatchers and the town manager’s office have fielded hundreds of phone calls and emails from as far as Alaska and Canada, reacting to reports of a police commissioner’s racist comment overheard in a restaurant.
Many of those callers, according to Wolfeboro officials, do not understand that the police commission is a separate, elected board and not made up of sworn police officers.
To clarify any murkiness, Wolfeboro Police Chief Stuart Chase held a press conference Friday afternoon, the day after hundreds of people turned out to protest Commissioner Bob Copeland’s racial slur brought to light by local resident Jane O’Toole, who complained to town officials.
Copeland was overhead at a restaurant and has acknowledged calling President Obama a “f...... n.....”, but has refused to apologize or resign.
Chase said the police and town’s phone and email inboxes have been inundated with comments responding to Copeland’s remarks.
“The general tenor of the calls or electronic messages is one of shock, anger and disbelief — a sentiment that we as police officers and public servants understand. However, many callers have responded with vial, obscene and threatening comments which are misdirected and inappropriate as those purported comments made by an elected police commissioner some weeks ago.
“For the record, clarification is needed,” said Chase. “The Wolfeboro Police Commission is a three-person board whose duties and responsibilities are defined by New Hampshire (laws). The commissioners are elected officials who serve three-year terms. They hire, fire, establish compensation and promulgate the rules and regulations of the police department. They are not officers or sworn employees,” he said, adding that many callers assume the commissioners are police officers.
Chase said Copeland’s comments do not represent the views or opinions of the Wolfeboro Police Department, Wolfeboro Central Dispatch, or other members of the Wolfeboro Police Commission. If a police officer was overheard making a similar comment, it would be an “actionable” offense for which that officer could be placed on suspension.
“This agency is comprised of trained and educated personnel, indicative of the finest tradition of professional policing and representing altruism in its finest sense,” said Chase.
Support for resignation
During Thursday’s meeting and again in an interview on Friday, Police Commissioner Ron Goodgame said that he and Commission Chair Joe Balboni Jr. in “no way condone, endorse or sanction any of Mr. Copeland’s activities with regards to this issue. I think what Mr. Copeland has done is very unfortunate.”
Goodgame said that when they told O’Toole that Copeland’s letter of explanation was “accepted,” it just meant they received it and not that they accepted or approved of his views.
Dozens of speakers at that meeting called for Copeland’s resignation and in a statement released on Friday, the town’s leaders joined them.
In a statement posted on the town’s web site, Town Manager David Owen wrote: “The Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen (the Town’s governing body) and Town Manager (its chief executive officer) are appalled at the language used by Commissioner Copeland relative to President Obama, and have publicly stated that we find it reprehensible and totally inconsistent with the Town’s open and welcoming character. Mr. Copeland’s views are in no way representative of the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Wolfeboro, its administration, or the men and women of the Wolfeboro Police Department.
“The Wolfeboro Police Commission is a separately elected town board that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen or Town Manager, and there is no provision in New Hampshire State Law or the Town’s ordinances that would enable us to remove Mr. Copeland from his elected position on the Police Commission for his egregious behavior. Therefore, we are hopeful that Mr. Copeland will accede to the public outcry and finally do the right thing and resign from his elected position to save the Town any further embarrassment of his making,” stated Owen.
Clouds over good deeds
Goodgame said the outcry over Copeland’s remarks should not unfairly paint the rest of the commission, the department or the town in a negative light.
“I don’t think it’s fair to jump to the conclusion that (Copeland’s remarks) are the view of the police department and commission. I don’t think that’s fair. If (Sen.) Harry Reid D-Nev., said something like that, you wouldn’t fire the whole Senate,” said Goodgame. The police commission has accomplished much in recent years, including hosting the first open house last year, to which the police commissioners donated their $500 annual salaries and more to pay for the $1,800 event.
“We had an open house and people enjoyed it. We do things like community outreach, and we’ve been a voice for people who feel they have been oppressed by the police,” he said. And last year, when the town was plagued with a string of burglaries — 34 in all — Goodgame said the police commission authorized overtime so police could break the case.
“The chief told us he was constrained by the budget. The commission said this was unacceptable, burn the overtime and we’ll figure it out later.’ Well, he put detectives on the case and we broke the (burglary) ring and people were sent to prison,” said Goodgame.
Chase said Copeland, 82, has in the past provided leadership to the commission and the board, many times using his expertise as an attorney.
“He’s very public spirited. He’s generous with his time, energy and financial resources in a million ways people will never know. He brings his years of experience as an attorney to the decision-making process. What has occurred here is not consistent with the Commissioner Copeland I know and respect. He’s been a great administrator and leader and in a sense, a great boss,” said Chase.
At Brewster Academy, Whitney White, 24, who attended and now works at Brewster Academy, is an African-American who spoke with Copeland after Thursday’s meeting. She attended Friday’s press conference, where she said the student diversity club at Brewster were expected to discuss the controversy at their meeting Friday evening.
White said she was “very offended” at Copeland’s comments, and found them hurtful. She said Copeland should have shown more respect for the President, and that while he used the ‘n’ word to bash President Obama, she said the comment may reflect what he feels about all black people.
“I can’t change the color of my skin,” said White.
Heidi Peterson, a woman of color who is half African-American and half Caucasian, said she has known Copeland for about seven years. She works as a local Realtor. She said she told Copeland his comment, even though he told her he made them in a heated moment to be hurtful to President Obama, was inappropriate for an elected official.