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Police Commissioner Resigns But Questions Remain

Although Police Commissioner Robert Copeland submitted a letter of resignation earlier today, the people of Wolfeboro worry about the possible long-term impact the racial controversy could have on their town. NHPR's Sean Hurley spoke with residents over the weekend, before Copeland’s resignation and looks more closely at what led to today’s events.

On Sunday Joanne Parise sat on the shore of Wolfeboro Bay.  On nearby Main Street, families lined up for ice cream, gazed in shop windows, and consulted maps and guidebooks.  The summer tourist season has already begun. 

But it’s been a rocky start—for the last few days Wolfeboro has been in the national spotlight over reports that one of its police commissioners, Robert Copeland, publicly used a racial slur to describe President Obama.   

To have the outside world know Wolfeboro for this? It's tragic.

On Monday morning Robert Copeland sent an email to police commission chairman Joseph Balboa, simply saying—I resign. 

Copeland is 82 years old and was re-elected to a three-year-term this past March.  Under New Hampshire law, the police commission’s duties include hiring, firing and disciplining personnel, and setting their salaries. 

Reports that Copeland used the N-word to describe the president surfaced after resident Jane O’Toole reported overhearing him at a local restaurant last March. 

At a packed police commission meeting Thursday night, Copeland refused to apologize. 

Whitney White was there.  She’s one of only a handful of black residents in the predominantly white town.  She grew up in Brooklyn, but went to high school here at Brewster Academy and now works for the school.

I wouldn't say that this is a racist place. Like, I feel comfortable. If I didn't I wouldn't have come back here. These people have become my family. I don't have any blood or anyone here.

But White says she closely watched Copeland at the meeting. 

His arms were folded, he was looking at his watch. He was tilted back in his chair. He didn't even pay attention, he was doodling on a paper. It's just like, you have this many people here talking to you asking you, "Are you going to apologize?" Like, just do the right thing and resign so it won't affect the town like it's affecting it right now. And the way he came off is like he could care less.

Also at Thursday’s meeting was high school junior Michael Bloomer.  He says he felt compelled to speak up.

I was speaking directly to him and I was looking for him to respond because he has at no point apologized. He has not said this was wrong. And I wanted that more than anything. And other than that I wanted the room to see that even people my age are looking at this with outrage.

On Friday, the Wolfeboro Board of Selectman and Town Manager publicly called for Copeland’s resignation.  In a statement they called his remarks, quote, “reprehensible and totally inconsistent with the Town’s open and welcoming character.”

Part-time Wolfeboro resident and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also called for Copeland’s resignation.

As national media outlets picked up the story much of the residents’ concerns turned to the potential impact on summer tourism.  Hunter Emory owns Lydia’s Café in town.

We got a response from somebody saying that they were not going to spend another dime in this town or in our store until the people of Wolfeboro got rid of the elected official.

After Copeland’s resignation on Monday, Wolfeboro Town Manager David Owen expressed relief.

A very good step to get this behind us, we’ve been having people calling and threatening or actually canceling vacation plans and threatening to boycott Wolfeboro businesses and all this kind of thing.

Copeland has still not apologized for the comment.  And after receiving his resignation letter, police commission chairman Joe Balboni told CNN the town has a lot of healing to do.  Balboni and the other commissioner Ron Goodgame will now appoint a new third commissioner to fill Copeland’s vacancy.

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.

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