Friday, October 14, 2016

Life School: To protect, to serve, to save in Laconia, NH

Laconia, New Hampshire, located in the Lakes Region of our state does not appear at first glance to be either a good or bad town. Neighborhoods that fringe the lake have a folksy, vacation feel to them. Others are quaint, tree-lined and orderly. Eventually, however, you see the neglected ones tucked behind the convenience store, or the gas station, At once, you realize there are many more tucked behind other things. 

Owing to  poverty and violent drug crime, Laconia now is considered one of the most dangerous cities in New Hampshire. It is also 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. This past spring, 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.

First, he's a big presence, a big presence wearing dark navy blue. And the equipment affixed to his belt – handcuffs, radio, baton, keys, flashlight, and of course, the gun – suggests that no day is predictable enough to leave anything at home.  

And the shoes. Cop shoes are some serious shoes.  
This is a very serious shoe.

I've known self-important doctors, bosses and teachers who enjoy making a show of their authority. There are, of course, police officers as well who swagger into the least significant interaction prepared to show just who is in charge. 

But not this one, not this night.

Chief Adams mixed with the crowd, breaking the ice, conversing with guests who wanted to know "just how bad is it now, up there in the Lakes?"  He didn't interrupt people when they were talking, he didn't lecture. His demeanor in this wine-and-cheese setting was like that of a polite Doberman – approachable, but capable of facing down a threat to those he protects. And then he got up to speak.

He described a community scarred by high unemployment and poverty in which nearly 25% of children live below the federal poverty levelPolicing, said Adams was light on the users, heavy on the dealers, and he talked about the resources aimed at finding and rescuing the ones not yet caught in the grip of the region's opioid epidemic.He gave us the visual: aimless kids loping along the streets, parents absent or indifferent to the easy opportunities for their kids to become addicted early. He would never forget, he said, the 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.

At the end of a small table, sat an adult figure who seemed to be sharing a story with the little kids congregating around him. He leaned forward as he talked and gestured and nodded and smiled as he listened. The kids tugged at him, eager to tell him things, show a drawing, 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. One of the kids said something 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 badass, but never will. Maybe a serious-yet-kindly figure sitting at the front of the room, offering suggestions for staying out of trouble with the caring but cautionary message:  I can protect you now, or punish you later. 

Some figures of authority do that; keep the 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 his equipment and serious cop shoes, present and engaged at eye-level with one of his smallest at-risk citizens in the community he protects and serves, but mostly aims to save.

I have no doubt, Chief Adams deals with threats to his community that are crushing. I won't forget the talk that all of us heard at that event.

But last week was not about talking the talk. Last week was about those cop shoes walking into a circle of small children who may thrive as easily as fail with the right eyes on them. 
That's the thing I won't forget 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.