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Growing ranks: Number of N.H. police has grown twice as fast as state population over past 20 years

Concord Police chief Bradley Osgood (on video screen) addressses the Concord City Council on Thursday, May 26, 2022.
GEOFF FORESTER / Concord Monitor
Concord Police chief Bradley Osgood (on video screen) addressses the Concord City Council on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Violent crime in Concord is nearly half the national average, a rate that has barely budged over the last two decades. Despite recent increases, police calls for service in the city are below what they were ten years ago.

Still, the Concord Police Department has grown more than three times faster than the city’s population, increasing the number of officers in its ranks by 20% between 2000 and 2020, an overall trend seen around the state.

Concord’s police department’s budget has followed a similar upward trajectory while taking a higher portion of overall city spending.

Amid public calls in 2020 to reallocate funding to other city services in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, the Concord City Council gave the police department an extra $1 million in pay on top of their regular contractual raises, which triggered even more spending through increased retirement costs.

This June, city councilors voted to add an additional two officers to the police department, above the lone opposition of Ward 10 Councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins, who argued that the city should examine how that money could be spent to prevent crime and perform outreach.

Concord isn’t alone in its ever-growing police department. Despite falling crime rates, the total number of police officers in New Hampshire has continued to mushroom over the past two decades.

Over the last 20 years, the number of full-time certified police officers in the state has increased by 20%, from 2,595 officers in 2000 to 3,117 in 2020, according to the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council.

New Hampshire’s population increased by 11% during that same period. The violent crime rate in the state has fallen about 16%, and property crimes have dropped off by more than 50%, according to FBI data. New Hampshire recorded the second-lowest violent crime rate of all 50 states in 2020.

Meanwhile, between 1999 and 2019, the number of law enforcement officers nationwide grew by 9%, according to FBI data.

“In a typical community, the police are going to be the most expensive line on their budget,” said James McCabe, an associate professor at Sacred Heart University and a retired New York Police Department official who consults with police departments on staffing. “If left to themselves, police chiefs will just ask for more.”

Over the last year, the Concord Monitor and the Granite State News Collaborative sent out Right to Know requests to more than 240 police departments across the state for information on budgets, hiring and officer demographics going back to 2000. The data project set out to document changes in policing staffing over the past 20 years, following statewide efforts to increase police transparency.

Department responses can be viewed on nonprofit news site MuckRock. Some departments did not respond to repeated records requests and others provided incomplete records. Because many departments referred the Monitor to annual town reports, in some cases staffing may include part-time officers as well as full-time officers, or authorized positions may appear in place of actual staffing.

The numbers from individual departments align with an overall statewide increase in certified officers, reported by the Police Standards and Training Council, and with trends of staffing data that some New Hampshire departments report to the FBI.

In interviews, police chiefs cited a number of factors for the increase in police staffing, while noting that nearly every department has recently struggled to fill vacancies. City and large town police departments say growing populations and increasing calls for service drive the hiring of new officers. Some towns have switched from part-time officers to full-time ones.

In a few towns and cities, like Keene and Portsmouth, police staffing has remained steady or decreased. Other communities, including Bedford, Hudson and Bow have increased their police departments by twice the state average or more.

Police departments and politicians often use worst-case scenarios to persuade the public to approve more funding even as crime rates are falling.

Many police also say that solving crimes today requires more time as well as complex technology and training, and that departments receive more calls related to mental health crises, homelessness and substance abuse than they did 20 years ago.

NH’s three biggest cities

The state’s three biggest cities – Manchester, Nashua and Concord – have all seen significant growth in their police departments and police budgets over the last 20 years.

Concord added 15 total officers between 2000 and 2020, a 20% increase while the city’s population has grown 8%. Many of the new additions are officers in non-patrol units, including the domestic violence unit, the computer crimes unit, school resource officers, problem-oriented policing and community resource positions.

While Concord spent about $5 million on its police department in 2000, by 2020, the city was spending about $13 million, an increase of more than 150%. The share of Concord’s operating budget spent on police has gone up slightly, from 17% in 2000 to 19% in 2020. Those figures don’t account for rising retirement costs, which the city calculates separately. Added together, the police department consumes a larger portion of the overall city budget.

The Manchester Police Department added 61 officers between 2002 and 2022, bringing the number of officers up to 265 in 2022, an increase of 30%.

Manchester Chief Allen Aldenberg said that a growing population and more calls for service are driving staffing increases. The city’s population grew by 7% between 2000 and 2020.

In 2000, Manchester budgeted $11.9 million for its police budget; in 2020, that figure went up to $25 million, an increase of 112%.

“We need to retain people, recruit people, so that I can do all that is asked by this police department day in and day out and continue to make the city safe, make the city safer,” Aldenberg said.

Aldenberg said that Manchester now deals with more “critical incidents” – events like shootings, stabbings or a barricaded subject inside a home – that tie up personnel for longer periods of time.

“A lot of that’s attributed to mental health, substance abuse, real issues that society is dealing with,” he said.

Nashua started with 160 officers in 2000, and by 2020 had 176, an increase of 10% during a period where the city grew by 5%. In 2020, the department spent $32 million on its police department. Nashua did not provide police budget information for 2000.

“Patrol is the backbone of the department, any police department,” Nashua Chief Kevin Rourke said. “We have mandatory shift requirements, that there will be so many people on duty per shift,” usually about 12 officers.

Rourke said a recent staffing analysis based on the size of the city showed that Nashua should hire 13 more officers.

“I wouldn’t expect the city to give us 13 people in one year,” Rourke said, but he expects that the department will be able to add a few people per year to account for more housing development in Nashua.

Solving violent crimes

Although new recruits usually go first to patrol, adding new positions allows more officers to be promoted into investigative roles, one thing that Concord police chief Bradley Osgood told the Concord City Council he could do if given more money for staffing.

Concord Ward 3 Councilor Jennifer Kretovic mentioned the still-unsolved double murder of Steve and Wendy Reid in a June 9 budget meeting, while arguing that the city should prioritize public safety.

In Concord and Manchester, the clearance rate for violent crimes has remained between about 40% and 50% for much of the last two decades, according to FBI data. Nashua’s clearance rate has trended a bit higher, averaging 56%.

A clearance is recorded when someone is arrested and charged with the crime and turned over for prosecution, or the crime is cleared by “exceptional means.”

Put another way, police in New Hampshire’s three biggest cities have consistently solved about half of serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault that were reported, even as police departments’ size and budgets have grown.

Meanwhile, rates of both violent crime and property crime in Keene and Portsmouth declined by about half over the last two decades, even as their departments barely grew or in the case of Keene, became smaller.

How staffing is determined

The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council does not offer guidance to local departments on staffing, leaving those decisions up to cities and towns.

“The staffing of a police department is clearly left to the discretion of that community,” the Council’s director John Scippa said. “You can’t compare any two communities: each community is unique.”

Departments’ techniques for setting staffing vary widely. Some have conducted analyses, plugging in the number of police calls and calculating how long it takes officers to deal with complaints to estimate workload. Other departments consider crime rates or historic patrol shifts.

In Manchester, patrol staffing minimums are set based on agreements with police unions. For Portsmouth’s department, which had about as many officers 20 years ago as it does today, patrol minimums are determined by the Standard Operating Procedure, which is created with union approval.

Other New Hampshire departments like Hudson and Derry make staffing decisions using an average ratio of the number of officers per 1,000 people in a community.

While Hudson has grown 10% since the 2000 census, its police department has grown 37%, going up from 37 officers to 51 in 2020. Chief Tad Dionne said the department has added three resource officers at the request of schools, as well as a growing number of outreach programs to residents, including officers who interact with Hudson’s undocumented population.

Dionne also said more training hours recommended by the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency and Hudson’s body camera program have increased the need for more officers.

“We have a supportive government. The voters vote against the town budget but they don’t vote against the police items,” Dionne said. “If I can show the need to the town, that might be all they want.”

Derry’s police department grew from 45 officers in 2000 to 59 today, a 30% increase. Derry Sgt. Chris Talbot said that the chief allocates staffing based on the number of officers per 1,000 residents, and so as Derry grew by 16%, so did the police department. More businesses have meant more traffic and people in town during the day, Talbot said.

However, between 2004 and 2020, the average calls for service haven’t fluctuated much, averaging around 25,000, Talbot said.

“We don’t have a huge influx in major crime,” Talbot said. “I think the big factor is the population.”

What is a police call?

Counting calls for service to analyze staffing requires taking a hard look at which calls police should be responding to at all. McCabe said he has seen police departments take into account frivolous calls – what he refers to as “the barking cat call” – when estimating workloads.

Lebanon, which added just three officers between 2000 and 2020, performed a staffing assessment in 2016 which found it should add four more officers than it currently had on patrol, increasing from 22 officers to 26.

A few years later, in 2020, activists with Upper Valley Democratic Socialists of America tried unsuccessfully to reduce the police force by 50% and divert money to social services.

“The basic problem with that assessment is the underlying assumption that the police are the best person to send to any number of those calls,” said chapter secretary Rory Gawler.

In its Care Not Cops report, the activists wrote that because Lebanon police spent significant time on traffic and drug enforcement, diverting money to social services to address issues like homelessness and mental health would do more to enhance safety.

In towns and cities that can afford it, select boards and city councils are often willing to spend to add to police department staffing when police can demonstrate a need, chiefs said.

Even when they lack concrete data to show how an extra officer would enhance safety, police departments often get the funding they request.

“They’ve been able to go to their cities and say ‘we need more money’ without needing to provide any evidence that what they’ve been doing is effective or is a good use of tax dollars. There’s never a correlation between crime rates and budgets,” said ACLU-NH Policy Director Frank Knaack. “This notion that we need to keep funding police because we need them to keep us safe and they keep us safe, it’s not based in any evidence.”

Some chiefs buck that trend. The Keene Police Department has shrunk over the past 20 years, from 45 officers in 2000 to 41 today. Chief Steven Russo said that he has not asked Keene voters to increase the number of officers in part because the department has not hired an independent consultant to carry out a staffing study.

“You have to have a need. I would never ask the citizens for more tax dollars if we don’t have a need,” Russo said. “You can’t staff a department for what you think the worst is going to happen.”

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