By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The police department will soon have some new officers in uniform.
Police Chief Matt Canfield on Tuesday night briefed the City Council on plans to fill four vacancies in the department's ranks and hire a new officer through a federal grant.
During budget hearings last spring, Councilor Brenda Baer had requested an additional officer who could focus on the downtown area.
The city applied for and received a three-year U.S. Department of Justice community policing grant that will pay 75 percent of a new officer's salary, with the city picking up the remainder.
Adding this new policeman will allow the department to free up a seasoned officer who would be assigned to a role addressing “quality of life” issues downtown, Canfield said.
The officer would also initiate a Neighborhood Watch program and a crimeline in which people could call in tips and information about suspected criminal activity.
Canfield said programs that enlist help from the public in fighting crime can be quite successful.
“Tips from the public often generate leads,” he said. “People don't realize we are looking for that type of information. They say, 'I didn't want to bother police. I didn't want to call dispatch.'”
Some downtown business owners and others have complained about drug activity downtown and problems associated with the homeless population.
Baer said an officer focusing on downtown should help.
“It is just my feeling that the community would feel safer seeing an officer downtown,” she said Wednesday. “It could sort of eliminate some of the bad element downtown.
“They are not going to hang around if they see an officer. It would also promote goodwill with store owners.”
Canfield also said the department is doing background checks on applicants for four vacancies. He hopes to have those positions filled in February. Once those openings are filled, the department would be fully staffed at 41 officers, or 42, counting the one to be hired with grant money.
Justice Department statistics show that cities of Laconia's size have an average of two officers per 1,000 population. Laconia has about 16,500 people, but that number grows substantially during the tourist season.
Canfield would like to add three more officers as part of a five-year plan targeting the opioid crisis.
One would be a school resource officer at the middle school, who would implement a comprehensive drug prevention program that would also involve the Police Athletic League.
There is already a resource officer at the high school.
“Middle school is a very pivotal point,” Canfield said. “We want to put a lot more effort into education and prevention. Once somebody is addicted, it's a lifelong struggle, even if they do get into treatment and recovery.”
A second officer would work as a drug detective, and a third would be a uniformed patrolman focusing on drug interdiction.
“This plan makes sense, and doing it through a five-year strategic plan takes in the city's financial situation,” Canfield said. “On top of that, we'll be eligible to apply for another community policing grant next year.”
He has put together updated drug statistics showing the growing scope of the problem in Laconia.
Canfield said there have been eight overdose deaths so far this year, and what appears to be a ninth overdose death that occurred recently but hasn't been officially classified because toxicology reports have not been completed. That compares to five overdose deaths last year.
Overall, there have been 144 reports of drug overdoses in the city this year, compared to 81 last year.