TNHsquareLogo_longLOVEBy Tyler Kennedy, Contributing Writer
New Hampshire Listens hosted “Building Connections, Increasing Safety: A Community Conversation with the UNH and Durham Police Departments” in the Strafford Room of the Memorial Union Building on Monday.
All members of the Durham community were invited to attend. Attendants formed small, random groups in order to openly discuss issues surrounding the relationship between the citizens of Durham and the law enforcement that serves it. Each group was roughly composed of seven to nine people and featured individuals from mostly three categories: Durham residents, UNH students and local area police officers.
This event was the second of three planned discussions aimed at creating better relationships between police officers and the area they patrol; the first of which occurred in Dover, and the next will occur in Rochester on April 2 at 6 p.m. at the Frisbee Memorial Hospital Conference Center.
The planned discussion was fully outlined in a packet that was distributed to the participants as they entered the room. Also included in the packet were numerous documents concerning the community’s police force and the type of work that they do.
Established in 2011 at the Carsey Institute here at UNH, New Hampshire Listens is defined in the packet as a civic engagement initiative that “works to strengthen New Hampshire communities by helping citizen participate directly in discussions about policies that affect their daily lives.”
“The goal is to hear from you. This gives the opportunity to get officers and the community together … an overall chance to be proactive,” said Michele Holt-Shannon, who serves as the associate director of New Hampshire Listens.
As the event opened up, there were multiple mentions of how in recent times, specific incidents created community disputes. In more cases than one, they received national attention.
“(This is) the opportunity to bring us together before an incident happens,” said UNH Police Chief Paul Dean.
A trained facilitator, who stayed neutral to the discussion, led each group. With regards to New Hampshire Listen’s website, a deliberative dialogue is only as strong as it’s facilitators.
To get the best results with a dialogue such as this, it’s crucial that all members feel comfortable within the group. With this program, there were some strict group agreements that every participant was encouraged to abide. Respect was a major concern, and every participant was persuaded to speak for him or herself using “I” statements in order to keep the conversation productive.
The individual groups were left with over two full hours to openly discuss the materials featured in the packet, along with any knowledge or comments they had prior to coming to the event.
At more than one occasion did an individual remark on how our culture has changed greatly as time has progressed. In fact, there were few present there who grew up during the time when seeing a police officer in a school wasn’t unusual.
They, being both officers of the law and ordinary citizens, also commented on how there appears to now be a different dynamic when it comes to today’s youth and matters concerning alcohol, drugs, and violence.
A theme that really stood out for the group was how Durham residents would benefit from having a more personal relationship with the police officers that they employ. Many of the locals were impressed with the manner in which UNH police workers reached out to the students of the university.
As the event came to a close, a representative from each group was asked to summarize the main points that they came up with during the dialogue.
As time passes, according to The NH Listens website, decision makers and community members must then work together to enact the recommendations. It’s presently difficult to determine which specific recommendations the Durham community will put into place, but expect it to be sooner rather than later.
There is currently a program being developed at UNH titled UNH Listens, where students can take part in dialogues similar to the one featured above. Interested students can contact Leah Burke at UNHListens@gmail.com to learn more.