Friday, October 14, 2016

To protect, to serve, to save in Laconia, NH

Here is a sign that seems intimidating
until you get to know it.
Laconia, New Hampshire is composed of neighborhoods like high schools are composed of cliques. Some fringe the lake and have a folksy, vacation feel to them. Others, are tree-lined and orderly. And many, owing to poverty and violent drug crime are more likely to be featured in the "calls for service" that the Laconia Police Department publishes each year. 
Laconia is one of the regions served by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, where I volunteer as a writing coach. This year, for the first time, I have a teen in Laconia. We meet once a week to discuss how she will tell her difficult life story as she competes for the Club's Youth of the Year title. 
Five years ago, Christopher Adams became Laconia's chief of police after seventeen years with the department. Last year, he attended a gathering of Club supporters to talk about the Club's presence as a safe place for kids who might otherwise roam loose and antsy in those risky after-school hours.
Chief Adams is not someone you forget quickly.
I would not want to
be on the wrong
side of this shoe.
First, he's a big presence, a big presence wearing dark navy blue. And while he was not loud, the equipment affixed to his belt – handcuffs, radio, baton, keys, flashlight, and of course, the gun – suggested that no day was predictable enough to leave anything at home.  
And I don't have to tell you about cop shoes. Cop shoes are some serious shoes.  
I've known self-important doctors, bosses and teachers who enjoy making a show of their authority. There are, of course, police officers who walk into the least significant interaction prepared to show just who is in charge. 

But not this one, not this night.

Chief Adams didn't do a single imposing thing. He didn't crowd people when they were talking, or make too-intense eye contact. His mission this night was to bring the story of a drug-bashed community to the awareness of people who "had heard it was bad there." If his demeanor in this wine-and-cheese setting was as playful as a watchful doberman, his sincere interest in everyone he spoke too made him approachable. And then he got up to speak.  
Chief Adams talked about the growing need for a well-supported Club in Laconia, now considered among the most dangerous cities in New Hampshire. He cited crime rates, drug arrests, poverty. He described aimless kids on the border of crisis, poor parental supervision, and myriad temptations that lure young teens into early careers of crime and hopeless addictions. But his most compelling story was about a three-year-old who ran naked and hysterical from the scene of a drug bust into the arms of a police officer. 

Last week, I met my teen in Laconia and like always, we looked for a place to talk privately while very energetic kids of all ages and heights bounced around, burning off the energy of the day. 
"It's down here," she said. I followed her past an activity room where smaller kids were engaged in arts and crafts and other supervised play that allowed them to run free without doing damage to anything, or anyone.
At the end of a small table, little children clustered around an adult figure, who seemed to be sharing a story. He leaned forward as he talked, and then listened, nodding and smiling. The kids milled around, eager to tell a story I'm sure, show a drawing, share a joke, pepper him with questions about his job. 
I didn't recognize Chief Adams at first through the clutch of kids. But then he turned to look out at my teen and me. A smile broke across his face, and he raised his hand in hello. The little ones were competing for his attention and he turned away. 
Had I known that he was going to be there, I might have expected one of those Officer Friendly interactions I've observed in school districts full of stay-at-home moms and kids who want to look like badasses, but never really will. Maybe a serious-yet-kindly figure sitting on a table in the front of the room, offering suggestions for staying out of trouble, while imparting a caring but cautionary message: I can protect you now, or punish you later. 
I've seen the ones who keep that wall low enough to look over, but stay on their side just the same. 
But not this one, not this figure in navy blue with all that equipment affixed to his belt and his serious cop shoes, present and engaged at eye-level with the smallest of his at-risk citizens in a community that Chief Adams protects and serves, but mostly aims to save.
I have no doubt, this guy deals with threats to his community that are crushing. I won't forget the talk that all of us heard at that event. It was chilling. It was real.
But last week was not about talking the talk. Last week was about cop shoes walking the gentle walk into a circle of small children who may just as well thrive as fail in their struggling community, with the right eyes on them.    
I won't forget that more.


  1. This is lovely. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you Michelle, for visiting. I learn a lot from the things I never plan to see at the Club.

  2. So nice to hear a positive slant on policing - they do so much good and can make such a difference - we need to appreciate them more.

    1. Thanks, Leanne. It's so refreshing to see preventative steps taken and so touching to see small children respond to caring adults in any setting.

  3. I believe the vast number of police are good men and women. We also need to remember they suffer from PTSD in a huge way. Imagine going out onto the streets every day, not knowing what you'll encounter or if you'll make it home. Brenda

    1. I remember thinking about that three-year-old and wondering how long it would take Chief Adams to stop worrying about how she would fare. Probably that worry is always there.