Portsmouth police chief says that community partnerships & building trust with students are critical in preventing tragedies

Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner said that community, school, and law enforcement partnerships are important in reaching potentially troubled youth and helping to prevent tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Here is an excerpt from his interview with NHPR:

Why do you believe it’s so important to have a forum like this where you get students and faculty together and talk this over?

Well, I look at you know the way things have worked across the country. And there’s a lot of folks that have weighed in on this issue for many, many years going back to Columbine, and Sandy Hook and others. And in this instance it’s a high school. There are students that have been very eloquent and passionate about what’s going on. But I look back going throughout my police career. Many times when the police start to look at an issue, they look at it from one direction, and the successes that we’ve had throughout our policing profession has come from the community, when the community tells you what they actually want, what they feel they need. And somewhere in between is usually the best response, and I just feel that it’s best to hear from the students as to what they see, what they hear, what they feel. And part of that is building the trust with the students, and whether it’s the police, politicians, city council, school committee or school administrators.

Because you want people on the ground, in this case obviously students and faculty, that would know of a threat to be able to talk with you, to be able to have that dialogue.

Yes. I have 64 sworn officers in Portsmouth. That’s 64 sets of eyes. There are 1,100 students at Portsmouth High School. That’s another sets of eyes. So I just look at it that the more that the police and the elected officials are part of the community as opposed to apart from the community, it’s that much better for us and create[s] that open dialogue.

There was some criticism that signs were missed and so on. But of course over the years there were issues with that particular student, the shooter. He was expelled ultimately. You know what can a community do, and what responsibility do faculty and students bear in these cases?

So you know having worked very successfully as a Boston police commander for years, we started a program called Operation Home Front, which was as students in the middle school and the lower schools started to run into issues, a visit was made to the home. It was police. It was clergy. It was teachers. It was probation officers. This is before any of the individuals got involved in the criminal justice system, but there were signs taking place and kind of that holistic approach. Whether it was you know some other social service agencies need to be involved, whether there was other things going on in the home from drug abuse or some type of domestic violence, or things that the child was witnessing and striking out. And again, in this case I thought it was 20 some odd police calls to that house. You have to cross a certain line, probable cause for arrest, but there are certain other things that can take place using the social service providers, police, school administrators to try and reach individuals. And again, even with doing all that, not every tragedy can be prevented.

How do you know when to notify parents and students of possible threats? There are parents who want to know of any allegation at all. But how do you give out that information without unnecessarily scaring people?

Clearly in this day of instant information I find that getting out as much information without compromising the integrity of an investigation or the integrity of an ongoing process is the most important, because if law enforcement and school administrators don’t get the correct information out as quickly as they can and as efficiently as they can, then disinformation or misinformation will get out there by way of all the social media outlets. So I feel that you know we have to continue to maintain confidentiality and integrity in some of these cases in an investigation. But we also have to push out to the parents without overly or unduly alarming them to get that information out as quickly and completely as possible.

Source: How Local Communities in N.H. are Responding to School Threats | New Hampshire Public Radio