N.H. agencies put differences aside, work together
"We don't have time to stand around on the day of the event."
By NANCY WEST
The Union Leader
MANCHESTER, N.H. — When it comes to law enforcement agencies working together, the North Country's seem to get it right.
"Just forget the color of the shirt, work together and get the job done. We're all there to help each other out," said Pittsburg Police Chief Richard Lapoint.
Lapoint, who is the president of the Coos County Chiefs Association, said he doesn't see the kind of animosity between state police and highway patrol in his neck of the woods that's reported in southern New Hampshire.
"It's a mutual respect for each other," Lapoint said.
Necessity plays a role in the way different departments get along. There are few police officers to patrol large rural areas, and the towns are too small to fund large departments. They have to rely on other towns, state police, highway patrol, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Game, and county sheriffs.
Lapoint is the only full-time police officer in Pittsburg, which is the state's northernmost town and has about 1,000 citizens. He has five part-time officers, but they also cover Clarksville, with about 1,200 full-time residents and about 300 square miles. There are also many seasonal visitors and camp owners who visit weekends.
When Carl Drega went on a deadly rampage Aug. 19,1997, many different agencies came together to stop a killer. Drega, who had battled town officials in Columbia, killed four people and injured four others that day.
Drega shot and killed Trooper Scott Phillips in Colebrook when Phillips tried to ticket him for rust holes in Drega's truck. Trooper Leslie Lord went to back up the younger trooper, unaware of the shooting, and was killed getting out of his cruiser.
Drega stole Phillips' cruiser, drove to the offices of the weekly News and Sentinel newspaper, and killed Vickie Bunnell, the Colebrook District Court judge and attorney who had her office there. Drega then killed Dennis Joos, the paper's editor.
Drega next wounded two troopers, a Fish and Game officer, and a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Law enforcement officers from New Hampshire and Vermont, Fish and Game, and Border Patrol caught up with Drega in Bloomfield, Vt., where a gunfight broke out and police killed Drega.
During his career, Lord had served as head of the Pittsburg fire and police departments. In 1987, Lord went to work for the Bureau of Highway Enforcement until the agency merged with state police Oct. 1, 1996. Lord had been a state trooper for 11 months when he was shot down.
Lapoint said personnel from different agencies have keys to his police department so they can use the computers to avoid driving long distances to file reports.
Lt. John Scarinza, commander of Troop F in Twin Mountain, said there are no disputes between state police and highway patrol or any other department in his area.
"Being a trooper, at least in the North Country, is not a 9 to 5 p.m., punch-in, punch-out job. It's a lifestyle," Scarinza said. "Guys take phone calls at home. People show up in your driveway, they come up to you in the grocery store when they need help."
Rural law enforcement resources are thin and spare, he said.
"Through many, many years of working with each other and many, many years going through tragedies with each other, we don't have the time or luxury to be bickering among ourselves or to be having these rivalries. We work together and enjoy working together," Scarinza said.
All of the different law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies, have a seat on the Coos County Chiefs Association. "This puts everybody on an equal footing and fosters relationships. It's puts them all in this together," Scarinza said.
Scarinza spoke of a situation in which a man barricaded himself in Stratford.
"We had one (officer) from Highway Patrol, two Fish and Game officers, local officers and two troopers working side by side. No one was hurt, and the man surrendered his weapons," Scarinza said.
It was after the Columbine school shootings that chiefs in the North Country began working toward making sure different agencies had the same training. Different departments and agencies often train together, Scarinza said.
"We asked, 'How are we going to take those different disciplines and departments and make a cohesive group?' We don't have time to stand around on the day of the event," Scarinza said.
Troop F has 36 troopers, four of them plain clothed officers, covering 39 percent of the state, including all of Coos and Grafton counties.
"We do everything from dog complaints to assisting (the Major Crimes Unit) in homicides. The ruralness sort of fosters relationships," Scarinza said.
State Police Commander John Barthlemes started his New Hampshire law enforcement career up north.
"The North Country is a model for collaborative law enforcement. It doesn't matter the color of the uniform. Everybody works together," Barthelmes said.
He said he brought what he learned there to all of his assignments since.
"It stayed with me. That's the model I'm trying to implement throughout Safety since the day I got here. I think there is progress," Barthelmes said.
Barthelmes will decide whether to merge two agencies within the Department of Safety, state police and highway patrol, within the next few weeks, aware of the hostility between them in some parts of the state.
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