A monthly zine publication about
working-class history and culture
in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
by Mikey Ippolito
“WE ARE STILL HERE”
“All liberation struggle is place-based liberation struggle. The scale might differ wildly, and the size might differ wildly, but it’s all place-based. Liberation struggle is specific to the needs and the struggles of people where they are, and that ‘where’ has many, many different dimensions.” - Ruth Wilson Gilmore
"WHY I DON’T TRUST PORTSMOUTH PD"
A brief pamphlet on recent injustices in Portsmouth policing
Written by Mikey Ippolito, June 6, 2020
Over the last several years I have grown increasingly distrustful of the Portsmouth Police Department. All too often, when I express this growing distrust people around me respond very defensively or shut the conversation down altogether. Whether it’s family, neighbors, teachers at PHS, fellow students, even young and left-leaning friends, there is a general taboo around talking about police injustice in our own town. Even as we show up in front of North Church and proclaim “Black lives matter,” or see videos of police violence from around the country, we are hesitant to turn a critical eye on our own community. And when we do criticize our own police, we are quick to argue that “it’s just one bad apple in the bunch” - in other words, injustice is the work of bad individuals, rather than a bad system. This approach frames problems in our policing as individual issues, rather than institutional shortcomings. Through both our silence and our insistence on an individual-based “bad apple” narrative, we in Portsmouth avoid taking responsibility for the harmful practices inherent in how our police institutions function.
This pamphlet seeks to provide evidence-based narratives on three recent events in Portsmouth policing: their longstanding support of the Trump Administration, as well as two issues of misconduct, one by a former Police Commissioner, and one by the department at large, centering around the actions of Sgt. Aaron Goodwin. These issues reveal aspects of our police institutions that many of us would often rather not talk about; for this reason, we have to talk about them. These three issues are by no means the only problems in our policing, but they are significant, timely, and relevant to current events. We are lucky to have a great deal of evidence accessible to the public surrounding these three issues. It is our responsibility to review that evidence.
I hope this pamphlet will be useful as we gather to show our solidarity with the George Floyd protests around the country. Black organizational leadership, including Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, and Minneapolis’s Black Visions Collective, have made their demands clear with regard to policing: Defund the Cops. We must follow their lead. Please keep this goal in mind as we show our power in the streets, in our homes, in our schools, and in city hall. We must break the silence. We must be honest and critical about police injustice in our own community.
PORTSMOUTH POLICE’S ENTHUSIASTIC SUPPORT FOR THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
The Portsmouth Police Department has been, and continues to be, aggressively pro-Trump on an institutional level. In 2015, the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEBPA) was the very first police union organization to support Trump for presidency in the 2016 national election. The organization held its endorsement event in Portsmouth at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel, where Trump spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of police officers behind closed doors. In February, 2020, the NEPBA reaffirmed their support for Trump, once again opting to host their endorsement event in Portsmouth. This time, Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump spoke at the Sheraton. The event was called “Cops for Trump.” (Barndollar, “Pence in Portsmouth”; Dinan, “Police Union Blasts Portsmouth Commissioner”)
We do not need to discuss at length the concerning elements of Donald Trump’s platform - there is more than enough local discourse regarding Trump and the deep injustices of his administration. But allow me to state the obvious: Donald Trump is dangerous. He is not just a conservative. He is not just business-as-usual in the political establishment. Whether it’s his administration’s massive expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against undocumented people, or his recent comments about the George Floyd protests (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”), we repeatedly see his administration use law enforcement like a domestic military, posing an existential threat to millions of Americans. We should be concerned by the Portsmouth PD’s unwavering and enthusiastic support for Trumps and his administration.
In 2015, Trump ran on a basis of xenophobia and bigotry, specifically against Latina/o people and undocumented immigrants. In 2020, Trump’s administration made good on its threats, establishing concentration camps on the border, stripping children from their families and incarcerating asylum seekers, leaving hundreds traumatized, dead, or missing. Even before his presidency, Trump has been neglectful and outright racist towards Native Americans, Black people, and People of Color of many different nationalities and races . Most notably as of late, he has targeted Black protesters and Asian-Americans. Not only that, his administration has led a constant crusade against the rights and recognition of LGBTQ people, specifically transgender people. And of course, he is a sexual predator and virulent misogynist - the Access Hollywood tape (“grab her by the pussy”) made that abundantly clear before he was even elected. This is compounded by multiple allegations of rape, as well as his close private relationship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Trump is a sexual predator, a white supremacist, and a neo-fascist; to say anything less would be historically irresponsible and dangerously polite. We knew this from the very beginning and Portsmouth police still decided to endorse him in our town not once, but twice.
At this, some may cite recent op-ed statements by Portsmouth Police Commission Chair Joe Onosko in which he claims that “less than half of the officers [in the Portsmouth PD] support Trump.” Commissioner Onosko has publicly expressed concern at how the NEPBA’s support for Trump may alienate residents who are victims of Trump’s policies and hateful rhetoric. In a public response to Onosko’s dissent, NEPBA President Jerry Flynn contradicted Onosko, stating, “... President Trump was almost unanimously endorsed by our membership with only one dissenting vote not in favor.” In fact, Commissioner Onosko’s detraction from the NEBPA on the issue of Trump support was so resoundingly unpopular within the organization that Flynn publicly called for his resignation. In his response, Flynn stated that “Mr. Onosko’s public temper tantrum” was “vile”, “reprehensible” and even that Onosko’s disagreement “broke the law”. This language, coming from an elected leader of New England’s largest police union, should deeply concern us - especially the assertion that Onosko’s comments are not just unfavorable, but illegal. When law enforcement officials declare political disagreement “against the law,” they not only violate the first amendment, they also set a dangerous precedent for state control over public discourse. In his comments, we see Flynn do exactly that. (Flynn, “Guest View”; Onosko, “Guest View: Onosko Stands by Op-Ed”; Onosko, “Guest View: Why Are Police Unions Endorsing in 2020?”)
Beyond Portsmouth PD’s faithful support for Trump, there are two recent examples of injustice in the Portsmouth PD that I want to talk about: the actions of former Police Commissioner Brenna Cavanaugh in 2018, and the actions of Sgt. Aaron Goodwin from 2010 to 2012. These events made for high-profile news stories as they occurred. However, after the initial media storm was over and the conversations subsided, I have found that Portsmouth residents tend to overlook these issues due to taboo. The cultural stigma around both cases - the same that surrounds all criticism of police in Portsmouth - extends even to expressions of sympathy for the victims involved, a child and a 90-year-old woman respectively.
I want to talk about these stories now because I couldn’t talk about them before, whether in Portsmouth High School when I was a student, among family and neighbors, or even among young, left-leaning groups I encountered during late high school and college. It seems nearly everybody has a neighbor, family member or friend involved with Portsmouth policing. As a result, Portsmouth residents - especially those of us who are white and belong to either the middle or upper class - tend to trust and protect our police institutions no matter what. Even if that means excusing the vigilante assault of a child, or covering for a department-wide conspiracy. These taboos add up to a dangerous trend of silence. And as Black political movement leaders have been saying all week, “White silence is violence.” That is, when we don’t properly acknowledge our own
history, when we refuse to hold our town accountable for its systemic flaws, we set the stage for future injustice against vulnerable populations.
FORMER POLICE COMMISSIONER CAVANAUGH’S EXCESSIVE “VIGILANTE” ACTIONS AGAINST A TEENAGER IN 2018
On an August night in 2018, a 16-year-old boy accidentally entered the home of former Police Commissioner Brenna Cavanaugh. Earlier in the night, he had received a Snapchat message from a friend inviting him to a party. Due to a miscommunication in this exchange, the teenager mistakenly believed Cavanaugh’s home to be the site of the party. While inside the unlit Summer Street home, he heard Cavanaugh’s voice from a bedroom: “Someone’s here,” she said. “Get a gun.”
The teenager sprinted outside and jumped into his parents’ truck, hearing the couple behind him. In a panic, he backed the truck into a telephone pole. The couple appeared outside to find the intruder fleeing. As the teen shifted the truck into drive and attempted to leave, Cavanaugh instructed her partner to shoot at the fleeing vehicle. Mark Gray emptied his firearm at the teenager as he fled, hitting the truck three times. The teenager sped away in a state of shock, lucky to escape physically unharmed. (Dinan, “Portsmouth Shooting Suspect”; Dinan “Shots Fired”)
Two years later, the aftermath is still ongoing. As of February, 2020, the teen stated that he suffers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and “a loss of enjoyment of life” resulting from the incident. Legal proceedings are still underway for both former Commissioner Cavanaugh and her partner Mark Gray. Cavanaugh was found guilty in August 2019 of “being an accomplice to attempted first degree assault and accomplice to criminal mischief” for encouraging Mark Gray to shoot at the teen even as he was driving away. Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wageling in her sentencing stated that Cavanaugh acted as a vigilante and noted that her actions were traumatizing not only to the child involved, but also to her neighbors. She has been sentenced to at least four months in jail and is currently in the process of an appeal. (McMenemy, “Ex-Police Official”)
While acknowledging that “Brenna’s actions that night were reckless and inexcusable”, current Commissioner Joe Onosko stated also that “I’m sure if she had one wish it would be a redo of that fateful night, especially undoing the trauma that continues for the young victim.” While this may be true now, we know that in the immediate aftermath of the attack - that is, after finding out the assailant was a fleeing child and not a burglar, but before being brought up on charges - Cavanaugh expressed a slightly different sentiment to reporters from Boston 25 News. When asked about the actions of her partner Mark Gray on the night of August 18th, Cavanaugh stated, “He made the right decision, and I would hope he would do it again because we didn’t know who was
behind that wheel.” In other words, shoot first and ask questions later. (McMenemy, “The Rise and Fall”; Dreier, “Shots Fired”)
Notably, Cavanaugh was one of the few people involved with Portsmouth Police during the mid-2010s that spoke out in favor of an investigation into the actions of Sgt. Aaron Goodwin, who conned a dying elderly woman with dementia out of her fortune in 2012. To use a term I hear often from my family and neighbors regarding the George Floyd protests, we may say that Cavanaugh, for her admirable part in the Goodwin case, is “one of the good ones.” That is, she is an individual within our systems of policing that speaks out against injustice rather than for it. Yet if she is a “good one” (and relatively speaking, she is) that merits a closer look into the rank and file of our Police Department and the city institutions that support it. (McMenemy, “The Rise and Fall”)
SGT. GOODWIN’S PREDATORY EXPLOITATION OF AN ELDERLY WOMAN WITH DEMENTIA AND PORTSMOUTH PD’S COVERUP
In August, 2014, Shaw Road resident and retired officer John Connors gave an interview with Seacoast Online concerning what he suspected was long term, criminal exploitation of his wealthy elderly neighbor, Geraldine Webber. The first line of the Seacoast Online write-up reads: “Primary beneficiary of the late Geraldine Webber’s $2.7 million estate, Portsmouth Police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin visited Webber’s home in an unmarked police cruiser ‘hundreds of times’ before she died, said John Connors, Webber’s next-door neighbor and a 42-year member of the Portsmouth Police Department.” Connors’s whistleblowing resulted in a city-backed investigation that ultimately annulled Webber’s will, declaring undue influence by Goodwin. It also uncovered a web of conspiratorial compliance in the Portsmouth PD and put forth a shocking memorandum of the specific, blatant ways Goodwin and other officers exploited Webber in the vulnerable final years of her life. (Dinan, “Veteran Police Officer”)
After an extensive review of statements from the court in Judge Cassavechia’s decision, as well as nearly all professional news reports published around the Goodwin case between 2014 and today, I have concluded that news publications have all too often made the injustices of this case out to be less severe, less widespread, and less blatant than they actually were. News reports consistently underplayed the extent to which other officers were involved, as well as the court’s resounding consensus regarding the dishonesty of many police witnesses. With reporting like this, it is easy to see why what little discourse I do hear around the Goodwin case these days tends to paint the whole situation as the story of one bad apple in the bunch. This was not an individual issue
- this was a department-wide conspiracy, and it should deeply affect the way we understand and value our local police institutions.
After meeting her on October 25, 2010, Sgt. Goodwin quickly developed a very close relationship with Ms. Webber. He usually visited her multiple times a week, and called her even more often - the court document notes 832 calls between that date and November 4, 2012. During this time, the court states, Goodwin inserted himself into her life as a primary caretaker. Goodwin gave Webber legal advice, medical advice, and helped her out around the house. At least once, he took her to a casino in Connecticut to gamble. Goodwin himself claimed that his relationship with Webber was like that of a mother and son. Contradictorily, Webber stated often and explicitly that she saw Goodwin as a lover and a sexual interest, and believed they would marry. On one occasion, she even expressed that Sgt. Goodwin was a gift sent from God to protect her. (New Hampshire 7th Circuit Court)
Ms. Webber’s neighbors, friends, and personal physician - even multiple customer service workers, who served Webber at the bank or did her yardwork - knew something was wrong. Multiple people reported Webber’s vulnerable situation to the state Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services (BEAS), multiple times. Those who made reports experienced a frustrating lack of follow-up from the BEAS. While people close to Ms. Webber entreated the state to investigate, the Portsmouth PD conducted its own “thorough investigation” into Goodwin’s relationship with the elderly woman. Chief Dubois reported he was “convinced there was no violation of law or departmental regulations committed by the officer involved.” In Judge Cassavechia’s 2015 decision, the court expresses doubt that this investigation was ever adequately carried out.
As all this occurred, Goodwin continued to manipulate and groom Ms. Webber with impunity. After knowing Ms. Webber for only a year and a half, Goodwin became the recipient of $2,000,000 in the 90-year-old woman’s will.
Goodwin was not private about his relationship with Webber around the department. He spoke about her with other officers. Once, he brought her to Captain Mike Schwartz and Chief David (Lou) Ferland to help her report a complaint with an attorney. As early as January 2011, Goodwin told both Chief Ferland and Captain Corey MacDonald about Ms. Webber’s intention to grant him her inheritance. Judge Cassavechia’s 2015 decision goes into great detail about the degree to which other officers were aware. In the Section C, “The Portsmouth Police Department,” the court describes how the matter of Goodwin’s inheritance was a casual topic of conversation around the office:
“The Court was struck by an email sent to Officer Goodwin by Captain MacDonald, in December 2011 after Webber sent a box of chocolates to the department as a thank you for police assistance when she fell down at her home. In that email, Captain MacDonald writes to Officer Goodwin: ‘How come you get the house and we just get chocolates?’”
This whole portion of the document is incredibly damning and explicit. Not just in its condemnation of Goodwin, but in its condemnation of a great deal of other officers as well. As a student of history, usually when I read these types of documents I expect to read between the lines to get the real story. However, there’s no need for inference that with passages like this one:
“The Court, after due consideration, could write pages of observations regarding the sometimes self-serving and dubious, often contradictory, testimony by Detective Warchol, Officer Goodwin, Chief Ferland, Captain MacDonald, and Captain Schwartz. These witnesses also displayed an unusual measure of selective memory regarding the events at hand.”
The whole department stood to gain if Goodwin successfully received the inheritance. The Portsmouth PD, as well as several individual officers, were slated to receive large sums of money from Ms. Webber’s will at certain points in the deliberation, prior to the judge’s decision to throw it out. Portsmouth cops knew that their dishonesty in court could have meant their personal gain in the long run, so they took the opportunity. (New Hampshire 7th Circuit Court)
Ultimately, the court states that it found the witness statements of Portsmouth PD officers to be questionable at best. In the decision, the court decided that the statements of multiple high-ranking Portsmouth police bore little evidential weight overall. Think about that: these were officers of the law, people we are taught to trust and respect. If the court doesn’t trust them, though, why should I? Why should you?
In the wake of the 2015 decision, Goodwin was fired and the Portsmouth PD underwent a shake-up of leadership. Chief Dubois stepped down in 2016. Several officers left the force; some simply got jobs in neighboring towns, where they continue to work today. After giving his interview, whistleblower John Connors was punished by his fellow members of the PPD with a gag order for speaking out against injustice within the department. However, he left the force, appealed the gag order in federal court and won a large settlement. (Corwin, “Portsmouth Police Chief”; Corwin, “Officer Resigns”; Contributed from Dinan, “Former NH Cop Punished”)
After all this, though, Aaron Goodwin still may have come out with a sum of money awarded to him by a local police union - we don’t know how much, though, because the information is still confidential. An arbitrator’s report reveals that Goodwin did indeed receive an undisclosed award after appealing his firing to the Ranking Officers’ Union. The Ranking Officers’ Union threatened to sue the city if the award should go public. For the last year, the Portsmouth Herald has been in the process of trying to obtain information on this award through an appeal with the Rockingham County Superior Court. Just as of late May, 2020 (a week prior to writing this) they have won the case. Keep an eye out for new information regarding the case - there are still forthcoming details that will likely incriminate the Portsmouth PD even further. (Dinan, “Portsmouth: ‘Award’”; Dinan, “Herald”; Altschiller, “Goodwin Case”)
I wrote this pamphlet to offer evidence-based arguments as to why I don’t trust the Portsmouth Police Department, but as we know with the nationwide George Floyd uprising, police injustice goes way beyond Portsmouth. This is an issue with policing in general, and no department is innocent.
In a small town, some of us undoubtedly personally know the victims of these injustices. But even if we don’t know anyone who has been directly harmed by police, we can and must empathize with victims of police injustice, in our community and beyond. I empathize with Ms. Webber because my own grandmother has Alzheimer’s. The thought that she could so easily be preyed upon by the state fills me with rage. I empathize with the young man who was a victim of Cavanaugh and Mark Gray’s vigilante assault because, not long ago, I was a teenager myself. I also made mistakes, though I was never shot at for it. Beyond these direct victims of the Portsmouth PD and its leadership, I can empathize with local victims of the Trump Administration’s violent policies and rhetoric, which the Portsmouth PD institutionally supports.
We must have empathy for these victims in equal measure to other victims of police violence around the US - especially Black people, who have been targets of police violence throughout our history. We know their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so, so many others. While these examples of our town’s recent injustices pale in comparison to those experienced by Black people across the country, we must recognize that now is the time to address all injustices in policing, both large and small, in order to chart a path towards a better future for community safety.
I wrote this in the hopes of developing a better public understanding of the glaring flaws in our own town’s policing, but these three brief arguments are barely the tip of the iceberg. Tragically, there are endless examples of police violence that occur daily around the country that we will never hear about, since the officers involved are protected from both the press and the law in much the same way that Portsmouth PD protected Aaron Goodwin. When the victim of police injustice is white, as was the case with both Cavanaugh and Goodwin, the system tends to respond more effectively. Perhaps this is the reason why both of these incidents resulted in competent investigations, from which a great deal of formal documentation was made available to the public. Too often, police injustices stay hidden within the walls of our nation’s police departments - especially when the victims do not have the privilege of being white. In these instances, misconduct is swept cleanly under the rug, only spoken of in private conversations and offhand jokes. Crimes by our nation’s police frequently end up invisible to the public, only ever to be known by the officers involved and the victims of their crimes - if those victims are still alive to remember.
Let’s break the silence around injustices in our own police. Let’s recognize that these injustices are evidence of larger, institutional problems, rather than the work of a few bad apples. It is our job to break the social stigma around criticizing police and get a conversation going.
AN UPDATE TO MY PREVIOUS STATEMENT
ON WHY I DON’T TRUST PORTSMOUTH PD
June 30, 2020
After making my previous statement about why I don’t trust the Portsmouth PD, a number of people reached out to me about their own experiences with the police and offered further reading about policing in our own community and around the country. After considering this new information and doing a good deal of my own reading regarding police and Black Liberation, I feel it’s necessary to put out an update to my previous pamphlet. In this (much shorter) essay, I hope to fill in gaps I left in the pamphlet and present a clearer argument as to what I believe we should do about the crises we currently face, specifically with regard to the police. I will continue to learn and fine-tune my views as I receive news and new information in the future. Thank you for your patience, your feedback, and your willingness to read.
Much has changed in the last three weeks. The uprising over the killing of George Floyd has turned into a sustained, worldwide movement for Black Liberation. Organizing infrastructure has emerged around the seacoast to guide ongoing movement work, whether in the streets, in our homes, or on social media. Portsmouth has been the site of several large-scale demonstrations, often multiple per week, with no sign of stopping until demands are met. While these demands differ slightly depending on the advocacy group or the demonstration in question, the baseline reason for the movement’s existence remains constant: to bring a permanent end to systemic racism. In the dimension of policing, this entails calls to defund and, increasingly, to abolish the police.
What has Portsmouth done in response to these demands? Very little. On June 15th, our all-white City Council voted to declare Portsmouth a “racial justice municipality,” though they did so without any oversight whatsoever from the Seacoast African American Cultural Center. (It’s worth noting, too, that even this minimal gesture of support was too much for Councilor Esther Kennedy, who parroted anti-movement “all lives matter” talking points before the vote.) Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine called again for Portsmouth police to adopt body and cruiser cameras, despite an abundance of studies over the last few years that suggest body- and cruiser-cam reforms do not meaningfully reduce use of force among police. These reforms and others funnel yet more money into already bloated police budgets. They fail to attack the problem of systemic racism at its roots, opting instead for band-aid solutions which look nice but keep things much the same. The police commission is hosting a community forum on the future of Portsmouth policing on Tuesday, July 14th from 6-8 over Zoom, but the situation remains the same: our elected officials are far more loyal to the demands of the police than they are to the demands of the people. (Barndollar, “Portsmouth Declares Itself”; Barndollar, “Portsmouth's Asst. Mayor”;
Ripley; Lockhart; Durkheimer; Barndollar, “Portsmouth Police”)
We see this in their tepid, minimal, and reform-oriented response to our demands for
radical change. They barely even acknowledge calls to defund police, and certainly do not give them any serious consideration. After protests, they tend to spend more time praising police for “keeping the crowd safe” than they do praising the protests themselves, despite the fact that it is all too often protest organizers - not police - who maintain a safe environment and prevent conflict escalation during demonstrations. Trust and support for the Portsmouth Police Department is unanimous among our elected officials, while their acknowledgment of the department’s shortcomings remains extremely scarce.
When I initially wrote a pamphlet on why I don’t trust the Portsmouth PD, I kept the narrative limited to three recent, already developed news stories that give me reason to mistrust Portsmouth police. In the last month, however, it has become increasingly apparent that I should have mentioned another highly concerning situation, still in development, involving accusations against our current Police Chief Robert Merner by former dispatch supervisor Kelly McGreneghan. Beyond that, I also want to make note of an important detail I missed in my original narrative of the Goodwin case regarding the department’s use of Ms. Webber’s estate funds to militarize Portsmouth police. After a summary of both of these topics, I want to close with a brief discussion on where I believe we should go from here, as we continue to fight under Black leadership for an end to systemic racism in Portsmouth and around the world.
SUSPICIOUS COURT SETTLEMENT BETWEEN POLICE CHIEF ROBERT MERNER AND A FORMER DISPATCH SUPERVISOR
On April 23 of this year, Seacoast Online ran a story about a $90,000 settlement paid by the city to former dispatch manager Kelly McGrenaghan in response to accusations raised by Ms. McGrenaghan against Police Chief Robert Merner. According to the article, “The settlement agreement states McGrenaghan will resign her job as communications supervisor and contains an anti-disparagement clause barring the parties from speaking ill of each other.” Despite multiple requests, the city’s legal office is refusing to release any further information about the nature of the accusations made against Merner. (Dinan, “Portsmouth Police”; Dinan, “Portsmouth Again”)
This is not the first lawsuit filed against the Chief, who in 2013 was the subject of a long legal debacle after an off-duty cop alleged that Merner used undue force against him while Merner was working crowd control at a Boston Bruins game. This incident occurred during Merner’s long tenure with the Boston Police Department, where he worked before transferring to the Seattle PD and then to Portsmouth in 2017. While the presiding judge ruled that Merner’s “use of force occurred within his discretionary functions,” he also stated that the off-duty officer “did nothing to warrant such aggressive behavior by officer Merner.” The case reached a settlement in August 2018. (Dinan, “Suit”; Staff of Seattle Times)
It is concerning to see the city’s persistent unwillingness to cooperate with the Portsmouth Herald on matters of police misconduct, whether alleged or proven. This situation may conjure up memories of a similar debacle regarding Goodwin’s termination and a large award granted to him by the Ranking Officers’ Union, the details of which are still under wraps as of June 30, 2020.
To be sure, the nature of these accusations is undoubtedly sensitive and personal. There are many possible reasons why either party might want to keep the details private. But it is disturbing to me that the settlement included a gag order which prevents Ms. McGrenaghan from discussing her allegations against Merner. Considering both this gag order and the PPD’s recent track record with exploitation and professional misconduct, I am wary that the police commission and the city’s legal team may be keeping the details of this case hidden in order to protect Robert Merner.
Further, though, we don’t need to know all the specifics of Ms. McGrenaghan’s accusations to make a judgment of this case - we already know more than enough to be concerned. The fact alone that the allegations raised by Ms. McGrenaghan were serious and substantiated enough to require a $90,000 settlement is more than enough to cast doubt over Chief Merner’s character, especially when we consider prior allegations against him. Besides, in the #MeToo era, any workplace accusation made by a woman towards a man in a higher position of power should, at the very least, inspire doubt and demand attention.
We should respect Ms. McGrenaghan’s privacy at this time and be mindful of this story as it develops. While specific details of the accusations may never become public, we should not let this incident get swept under the rug. We should remember it and discuss the details of it with our friends and family. This should factor into how we trust our police institutions.
THE PORTSMOUTH POLICE DEPARTMENT HAS USED FUNDS FROM THE ESTATE OF GERALDINE WEBBER TO MILITARIZE ITS POLICE FORCE
If you’ve been downtown recently during the ongoing protests for Black lives, you may have noticed quadcopter drones hovering over streets and buildings. These are operated by the PPD’s drone team, who use the drones to surveil peaceful protesters. According to Police Chief Merner, these drones are capable of IDing individuals anywhere in the open from a height of 200 feet. This is a threatening gesture that protesters ought to take note of, but it’s also yet another example of shameful conduct in the larger saga of the Goodwin case, where a former officer exploited Geraldine Webber, an elderly woman with dementia, out of her inheritance in 2012.
In November 2019, the PPD invested $30,000 in the drone team to buy a transport van for its seven quadcopters. Prior to that purchase, the PPD invested $25,229 in riot gear in 2017. This includes “a chest protector, helmet, forearm and elbow pads and shin guards for all members of the police department,” to be used in the event that officers are dispatched “to manage an unruly crowd.” Both purchases were made using funds from the estate of Ms. Webber. Although the court ruled that the elderly woman’s original will be thrown out due to undue influence by Sgt. Aaron Goodwin, a subsequent altered will from Ms. Webber’s estate still granted a large amount of money to the PPD. The department has been using this money to further militarize the Portsmouth police force. (Dinan, “Chief”)
When I initially put out the pamphlet on why I don’t trust Portsmouth PD, I was criticized by some readers for dedicating too much time and energy to such an old news story. The Goodwin case is water under the bridge now, many said - it’s in the past. Yet as we see from these recent purchases, the PPD continues to materially benefit from Aaron Goodwin’s exploitation of Ms. Webber. While many (but not all) of the officers involved in the Webber debacle are no longer with the PPD, the department continues to profit on an institutional level in part as a result of their past misconduct. These purchases are further proof of a general lack of accountability or remorse from the PPD regarding this incident. They make a disturbing epilogue to an already disgusting story.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
As we move forward in this mass movement for Black lives, we ought to take these incidents as examples of the true character of our city’s police institutions, not just the work of a few bad apples. Public outrage in the wake of the Goodwin case brought a handful of firings, a new police chief, and passionate calls for reform. But in light of the PPD’s continual suspect behavior, we must ask ourselves - is this what “reform” looks like? Faux-accountability and secret severance packages?
Increased public surveillance and militarization? Press evasion and gag orders? As we do our part in the current national and global movement, we must reject the notion that public outrage alone can successfully reform police institutions. Black leaders in our own community and beyond have made the demands of this movement clear: it’s time to get serious and defund the police.
Beyond this, though, we must ask ourselves whether the police can be reformed at all. I, like many others in Portsmouth, have spent the last month familiarizing myself with the history and politics of police abolition, and the modern-day abolitionist movement as a whole. I have read and continue to read works by Angela Y Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba - Black radical thinkers and organizers who have been asking this question long before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. These authors provide me with a vocabulary to talk about the issues we face and a historical context in which to understand them. It is uncomfortable to consider a world beyond policing because police have been the established norm for generations. But it’s time to start looking at radical solutions to the radical problems we live with today.
Police abolition is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, nor is it a utopian fantasy. It is a practical and intellectual tradition based on data, scholarship, and the tireless, often undervalued work of community organizers over the last four decades. The institutions which modern-day abolitionists seek to dismantle, police among them, are not divinely ordained; they are mutable, subject to change over time. They haven’t always been around and they need not stay if we can build better, safer, and more just institutions in the future.
Across the country, abolitionism is gaining traction as a legitimate solution to the crises we currently face surrounding racial injustice. When I wrote my previous statement earlier this month, I knew very little about abolitionism and, as a result, did not give it the space it deserves in an analysis of our current crisis in policing. Yet only three weeks after finishing the pamphlet, the city of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, has voted to disband its police department. Through initiatives like #8toabolition, abolitionism has become an essential part of this movement’s agenda. The 8 to Abolition initiative, put forth by a racially and geographically diverse group of authors from around the United States, offers eight clear demands:
Remove police from schools
Free people from jails and prisons
Repeal laws that criminalize survival
Invest in community self-governance
Provide safe housing for everyone
Invest in care, not cops.
You can read more about these demands and other aspects of abolition at 8toabolition.com.
In addition to holding our institutions accountable, we must begin to imagine radical solutions for the problems we face. The good news is that people have been imagining these solutions for years - we can use their ideas, experiences, and their visions as resources in our own community. We must continue to follow Black movement leadership both within and outside the Seacoast. Beyond simply holding our city institutions accountable, it is time to ask hard, uncomfortable questions about whether we even need police at all. We can imagine and build a better world beyond the one we know today, one based in community, trust, and mutual aid, where tragedies like the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, or Tony McDade are memories of a cruel past.
** EDITS TO COME SOON** links to articles available @ here!
Works Cited for "WHY I DON'T TRUST PORTSMOUTH PD"
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Works Cited for “AN UPDATE TO MY PREVIOUS STATEMENT”
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