Berlin police chief: Targeting nuisance complaints pays off in fewer service calls
BERLIN — By targeting “nuisance activities,” Police Chief Peter Morency said his department has seen a decrease in total calls for service and an improvement in the quality of life for residents of “the city that trees built.”
In January 2013, the Berlin City Council concluded that “certain individuals within the city receive and require more than the general, acceptable level of police services. Such individuals place an undue and inappropriate burden on the City of Berlin taxpayers, and constitute a public nuisance.”
Using the same legal rationale that for several years has allowed the state’s Department of Fish and Game to charge “negligent” hikers for the cost of missions to rescue them, the Berlin City Council amended municipal ordinances to give the chief of police similar capabilities.
The police chief can charge persons with a “nuisance activity,” which is defined as disorderly conduct, disorderly actions, animal violations, littering, protective custodies involving intoxication, false reports and unsworn falsification, and “recklessly or intentionally creating a situation requiring an emergency response.”
Fining nuisance offenders
The police chief may charge the offender “the costs associated with the nuisance activities that occur and to provide for forfeitures and/or fines for the individuals who create such nuisance activities or situations….”
A person who commits a nuisance activity, according to the ordinances, shall be required to pay “All response, investigation, and court expenses incurred by the City concerning such nuisance activity; and/or forfeiture” and/or a fine of not less than $250 and not more than $1,000 for a first offense.
Subsequent offenses within a 12-month period would subject the offender to a forfeiture and/or fine of not less than $500 and not more than $1,000.
Morency credited the “nuisance activity” ordinances with being a factor in driving down several categories in his annual year-end report. The most recent report saw the total calls for service decrease from 20,586 in 2012 to 18,553, nearly a 10 percent decline.
While the number of felonies reported in Berlin went up in 2013 from 159 to 177, or 11 percent, just about every other category in the crime report went down with the exception of misdemeanors and domestic violence incidents, both up about 4 percent; sexual assaults, up 9 percent, from 32 to 35; and also motor-vehicle accidents, violations and parking tickets.
Protective-custody arrests of intoxicated persons fell by almost 21 percent from 91 in 2012 to 72 last year; thefts were down 20 percent, from 441 to 352; vandalism/criminal mischief was down 39 percent; and reports of criminal threatening went from 209 to 175, or down 16 percent.
Also down were assaults — which shrank 31 percent, from 190 calls in 2012 to 132 in 2013 — as well as reports of verbal arguments, which plummeted 52 percent to 59 calls from 124 just a year earlier. The number of juvenile incidents saw a 26 percent decline, from 267 to 197 calls, while dog complaints fell from 533 to 414, a 22 percent reduction.
Morency said that the biggest positive is that “the community seems to be stepping up and working with our law enforcement and our police department and standing up for their community.”
That kind of relationship hasn’t always been the norm, the chief said, noting that over the past decade, Berlin has experienced an influx of new residents, many of them attracted by the availability of affordable rental housing.
The newcomers brought an increased demand on municipal services. Some longtime residents were initially hesitant to report problems that the newcomers were responsible for, due to what Morency said was a “mind-your-own business” philosophy, those residents, he said, eventually “got to a point where they realized they were being taken advantage of.”
That realization led to the “nuisance activity” ordinance as well as another that lets the city help landlords “enforce the eviction of undesirable tenants.”
Conviction rate hike
Berlin’s police chief since 2002, Morency said the ordinances have also resulted in an increase in convictions.
While seeming successful now, Morency admitted that there was a concern that the ordinances might have some unintended consequences, explaining that a major challenge “was convincing people that we’re not charging for services.”
Morency said that while there’s a lot of good stuff going on in Berlin, this city of 10,000 souls still faces the same challenges as most Granite State communities do, namely problems with substance abuse and mental illness, with the latter frequently fueling the former.
He added, however, that Berlin’s future is getting brighter, not only because crime is going down, but because the root causes of crime are being addressed, which Berlin, and many other New Hampshire police departments are doing under what is known as the “problem-oriented policing” — POP— model of law enforcement.
“As simple as that sounds,” POP is working in Berlin, said Morency, who said he measures success “by the reduction in the complaints and actually solving a problem rather than having a revolving door on these issues.”