Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard's uninhibited style has landed him in the spotlight recently. He’s been outspoken about the state's opioid crisis and has weighed in on political campaign disputes.
Most recently, he’s taken heat for comments about policing and race. But those who work with Willard say his actions often speak better than his words.
Willard was never going be your average police chief. He describes his childhood family life in Portland, Maine, as fractured: a place of alcoholism and violent abuse, with frequent visits from the police.
“I grew up not necessarily caring for cops,” he says. “I thought, if anything they made things worse. They would tell your father to take a walk, they would tell your mother to stop making him angry, and then they’d line you up on the couch, and an officer would look at you with such contempt.”
Last year, Willard became chief of police in the New Hampshire’s biggest city, making him the state’s most prominent law enforcement official. The thing about that soapbox is, Willard also says pretty much whatever he thinks. That lands him in the spotlight time and time again, whether it's about the state's drug epidemic or the volatile topic of policing and race.
Willard's good friend Andrew Lavoie is chief of police down in Nashua. Lavoie laughs, then hesitates as he describes Willard’s style.
“He’s very vocal, he’s very much out there,” Lavoie says. “My approach is a little more subtle, I guess.”
Willard was not so subtle on Twitter, the day Chris Sununu filed his candidacy for governor. Sununu told reporters that when it comes to the heroin crisis ,“no one has led at the state or local level.” Immediately, Willard tweeted that Sununu’s statement was “idiotic.”
Statements like that have rubbed some city officials the wrong way.
“I don’t like it,” says Pat Long, chair of the city’s Board of Aldermen. Although he likes a lot of Willard’s actions as chief, he says, “I don’t appreciate opinions being thrown out there. It’s a matter of credibility. We need everyone in Manchester to be secure with the duties of the chief.”
Last week, Willard wrote an open letter to his police department, then shared it with the blog ManchesterInkLink. It was in the wake of the Dallas shooting, in which a man killed five police officers, and it raised a lot of eyebrows. An excerpt is below:
I often push back against the media and politicians portraying [law enforcement] as killers of young black men, as if we do so systematically, and even the administration in the White House seems to feed that narrative. I’ve said such vitriol toward [law enforcement] is going to bring the crazy out of people and place police officers lives in jeopardy; well, here we are.
To many, this letter made it sound like Willard doesn't support efforts to end police brutality against black men, and as though he blamed Obama for the Dallas shooting. At a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Manchester, one protester held a sign that read "Chief Willard -- you got it WRONG!"
“I think that his comments were, I could say, misguided, and/or misinformed, at least,” says Woullard Lett, a former police commissioner in Manchester who heads the local NAACP.
Lett knows Willard, and says his intentions were probably good. But he says, “I think he’s really missed the point in that by not objecting to police misconduct, he is viewed as supporting it and actually feeding the narrative that the police are like a big gang who consider themselves above the law.”
Willard tells me he regrets sending that letter “Perhaps the word ‘vitriol’ was a bit strong," Willard says. "My vocabulary is off, I think, at times.”
He says, he just wanted to let his cops know – that he knows – that they feel under constant attack. In fact, he says, he has no tolerance for police misconduct.
When he saw a YouTube video of a police beating in San Francisco, he says, “I went to some roll calls and I played the video. I said, 'If you do this, officers, you will go to prison. And if you show up and you don’t act on behalf of that victim, hopefully I can imprison you for being complicit.’”
Willard says he gets it now -- that his letter sent a message at odds with how he actually runs his department. But ask the people who rely on Willard’s department every day, and people say his words are less important than his actions. Diane Fitzpatrick is at the helm of Manchester’s Boys and Girls Club. She says she has full faith in Willard as chief.
“If we have a child in crisis, if we have questions talking about security for our building, I have a go to person thanks to the chief," Fitzpatrick says.
I ask, do his comments give her pause?
“Absolutely not," she said. "Chief Willard can have his opinions, because he’s seeing a lot more than I’m seeing.”
As for what he's saying… that’s another story.