Rochester's Top Cop: On the opioid crisis, staffing woes, body cams and all the rest

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Rochester Police Chief Paul Toussaint during a wide-ranging interview last week about his first year as chief and his hopes for the future. (Rochester Voice photos)

Editor's note: It was just a year ago that Rochester Police Chief Paul Toussaint took over the reins of the 62-officer force at the city's Police Department. Toussaint, who grew up in Somersworth a stone's throw from the Rochester line and graduated from UNH in 1993, cut his teeth in law enforcement as a police dispatcher and animal control officer in Dover. Later he worked as a part-time patrol officer in Hampton Beach before joining the Rochester Police Department in 1996.

An easy-going man with an affable, warm smile, Toussaint now lives with his family in Strafford near Bow Lake where he enjoys boating and fishing in the warmer months. Toussaint agreed to speak with The Rochester Voice for an at-length interview last week. During the sitdown, which was held in the chief's office, he spoke about the trials and tribulations in his first year, including the opioid crisis, staffing shortages and a mental health crisis that is taking its toll on the department.

The Rochester Voice: Chief Toussaint, you've been chief here about a year. What's surprised you the most about the job?

Chief Toussaint: I don't know if this was a big surprise. I kind of knew what I was getting into. But this year's been a challenge in the sense that we've been so short-staffed for the entire year. It's been crazy. I've hired 11 people in the past 12 months, so that is significant. It seemed like for the entire first half of the year we were in hire mode. We were doing countless interviews, commission interviews, background investigations; it's a huge process to get an officer - someone who applies off the street - to get to an officer who is ready to handle your call.

The Rochester Voice: You mean as opposed to someone who's been a police officer in another town. That must be easier.

Chief Toussaint: It's much easier, yes. If they're already certified we streamline the process. We bring them in, we have an initial interview, we bring them in front of the commission and if the commission likes them we do a background. The problem with some experienced officers is some people want to move to a bigger department because they want more opportunity, some people are leaving a department because maybe they have some baggage that they're bringing with them and we have to vet that out.

So we certainly love to get certified officers, particularly New Hampshire certified officers, because it's a much easier process. We can get them in, get the background and once they're official hired, we put them in an abbreviated field training program because they already know how to be a police officer. They just need to learn the city and our policies - how we do things - so it usually goes a lot faster, a lot cheaper for us.

So, we've hired a few certified guys who came from different states.

The Rochester Voice: So that's taken up a large degree of your time, more than you thought it would?

Chief Toussaint: A huge amount of that time. And the frustrating thing about this year is that we feel like we've been handcuffed by our low staffing numbers; we can't do the things we want to do.

'We want to have an officer out there who has the time to patrol through neighborhoods, look for problems before they're reported to us,' RPD Police Chief Paul Toussaint says.

Ever since April, we've been at full staff on paper. We have everybody hired and in place, but they need to be trained, so to this point, I still have five guys in field training, so they're not on their own yet. It's getting better as time goes on and it really started to get better in the fall as we started to get officers onto the street in chunks, but we're still not where we want to be.

And our activity really took a hit last year. Our self-initiated activity, that is, not our calls for service, those rise every year. We really want to be in a position where we're a pro-active police department. We want to have an officer out there who has the time to patrol through neighborhoods, look for problems before they're reported to us. That's how police departments are effective, when they can get out there in the community, have time to make contacts with people, have time to beat the bushes and look for things that are not right and take action, And a lot of that self-initiated activity has been focused on motor vehicle activity in targeted areas. We get so many complaints about "you know, I think my neighbor's selling drugs" or "this one's selling drugs." We take that information and we direct our resources into those neighborhoods and we start making contacts.

The Rochester Voice: But if you don't have the resources ...

Chief Toussaint: Right, if we're running at absolute bare-bones staff because we only have so many officers on the street, we just don't have time to dedicate to that because we still have to answer all the calls that are coming in ... and they do come in!

The Rochester Voice: So now that you're getting closer to full staff, are you able to do some of those things?

Chief Toussaint: Yes, and it's getting better all the time. We were to a point where we had to bring everything in to do our core functions. We had a motor vehicle unit with two people on it dedicated just to doing traffic accidents and making traffic stops. We had an officer who is assigned to the Strafford County Drug Task Force that we had to pull that position just to do those core functions.

The Rochester Voice: And now he's back?

Chief Toussaint: Yes we recently assigned an officer back full time there. But our community engagement officer got promoted this year, so we didn't have the personnel to backfill that position, so our community engagement program took a huge hit, and that program is really critical to us as a real liaison with the business community. Now that position is filled again.

So the short answer to your question is "Yes." With more people getting onto the street and released from training we're able to slowly incrementally boost back to where we were before, but my goal is to really get us back above where we were before.

The Rochester Voice: In a way this may dovetail with my last questions, but let me ask you what aspect of law enforcement occupies your energy and mind the most?

Chief Toussaint: What occupies a huge part of our time are the overdoses. I mean it's not a new story, you've done multiple stories on this, but in the past three years we've just gone up and up in overdoses. At the end of 2017 the number of overdose calls we responded to were up 84 percent over last year.

The Rochester Voice: Yeah, we just did a story on that.

Chief Toussaint: But the bright spot of that is that our overdose fatalities are not corresponding. We're up just 11 percent.

But every one of those overdose calls is at minimum a two-man call, so I guess the short answer to your question is we're doing a lot more what I would say are not traditional police calls. Everyone has kind of agreed that the heroin epidemic, there's a medical component to this. These people have an addiction, they have a disease, but who do you call when your loved one is on the floor dying? You call the police department.

And that's not a traditional law enforcement role, that's EMS, but we're responding to these all the time because we have to.

The Rochester Voice: But you're not necessarily arresting them all.

Chief Toussaint: No, we barely arrest any of them, because the Good Samaritan Law. When this epidemic started we would go to these calls for overdoses and we would treat the person, then we'd start looking around, where's the dope, we'd find it and if we could make a charge, we'd charge them.

The Good Samaritan law is designed to - because people were not calling - they were taking the time to sanitize the area while this person is dying on the floor, because they were afraid they we're going to be charged.

So we can't charge them when we're responding to an overdose. So that took a big chunk of our arrests out of this.

The Rochester Voice: Which means more time, fewer arrests; that looks bad on paper, but you know you're doing the right thing.

Chief Toussaint: Right, but the right thing? There can be some debate on that because some people need to be pushed. Like we have drug court (where) if you have an addiction and you overdose and you're charged with possession, to me it's not all a bad thing.

The Rochester Voice: You mean incarcerated, you'll be off the street for a while.

Chief Toussaint: Not even necessarily incarcerated. You may be pushed through drug court where they say you can either go to jail or we're going to do this program and you're going to actively participate in this program. And maybe that helps them out. I mean that's up to debate, but that's the reason that our numbers go down for arrests.

The Rochester Voice: Not overall arrests but specific to drug possession.

Chief Toussaint: Yes.

The Rochester Voice: Next question, so with the heroin problem as it is, what is the single most important thing that you can do to safeguard the city and its people? Is it arrest the users, arrest the traffickers, outreach? You sort of answered that question already but is there anything you want to add?

Chief Toussaint: Well, it's a more complex problem. There's still a law enforcement component to this crisis. There are people who are moving all kinds of poison into our community. We do our best, we have an officer assigned to the task force (Strafford County Drug Task Force) full time, we have another detective that's assigned on a part-time basis, so we do a lot of drug type work in Rochester. And whenever we can make an arrest, we make an arrest. If we can arrest a dealer, get a dealer off the street, that's what we strive to do goal No. 1. But we also understand that the way to get out of this problem if someone has an addiction? They need treatment, and while we can't provide the treatment for them, we can do everything we can to facilitate them getting to treatment. Our community access to recovery program hasn't been as successful as I'd like.

The Rochester Voice: How does that program work?

Chief Toussaint: You can come into the station anytime 24 hours a day and say 'Look I need some help,' and we will physically bring you to Frisbie Hospital and hook you up with a counselor who can hopefully ... you know, strike while the iron is hot, because people are at a low point and say I can't do this anymore and if you have to wait for days to talk to someone you might not be in the same position.

So we partner with various groups like the Rochester Recovery Center, SOS, to do everything we can. We promote those programs, plus we offer all the time on calls, overdose calls, to hook them up with somebody in recovery. Because really, that's the only way to get out of this. If someone has an addiction, that they're physically addicted to this we can arrest them all we want, but when they come out of jail they're still an addict and they're still going to be looking for that drug.

The other big thing long-term is prevention. We really need to focus our efforts on teaching kids to make better choices, so we don't have another generation that falls into this same trap.

People in the recovery type fields tell me you would think that if you were a kid that grew up in a situation where parents were dug addicts and mom or dad were overdosing or dies, you'd be like 'I don't want any part of that,' but from what I'm told the kids that are in that are way more likely to follow right in that path.

So we got a grant, so for the first time we have an elementary school resource officer and that officer is responsible for handling issues at all of the elementary schools in the city and a big part of his job is he teaches the LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) program, similar to DARE, but a little bit different, to all third-grade kids. Then we hit them again at the sixth-grade level and then again at the ninth grade.

But we're not naïve. This isn't the magic bullet that's going to stop all this, but we hope we can reach a few of these kids and help them. The program is really about empowering kids to make good choices.

The Rochester Voice: We've talked to a lot of people like over at the Recovery Center and a lot of people familiar with drug addiction who say that with a lot of these people there is a mental health variable. Can you describe or quantify, as you see it, the magnitude of mental health issues that police deal with?

Mental health is another component that is not traditional law enforcement activity that takes up a huge part of our time. And a lot of our clients have a mental health issue. A lot of them are medicated, self-medicating their mental health thing with drugs, so there's a lot of coexisting problems. We deal a lot with emergency admittals, IEAs (Involuntary Emergency Admittals).

So someone's in a mental health crisis. We determine that they are either a danger to themselves or others and we need to take them in to see someone. That's a two-man call. Every one of those is a two-man call just like the overdoses, at minimum.

So we have a person who is potentially violent. We take them in and bring them to the hospital. Then most frequently we can drop them off and hospital security will watch them. But if that person becomes agitated and threatening or violent we have to go back.

So the problem becomes, and it all comes down to funding. You know there is a mental health crisis in New Hampshire as far as having adequate services for the people that are suffering from mental illness.

So frequently, someone will come to talk to them from behavioral health and say this person needs to go to the hospital or New Hampshire State Hospital (state's major mental health hospital in Concord), but there's no beds.

So they're on a waiting list. So they sit at the hospital emergency room, for weeks sometimes.

The Rochester Voice: Wait a minute. They sit in the emergency room at Frisbie 24/7?

Chief Toussaint: Yes

The Rochester Voice: Now at this point you've told them they can't leave

Chief Toussaint: Yes.

The Rochester Voice: Now at this point, silly question, but does the hospital feed them?

Chief Toussaint: Yes.

The Rochester Voice: Do you know how many people are usually up there?

Chief Toussaint: You'd have to ask Frisbie. I know we bring up a lot of people. And I think it's gotten better lately.

The Rochester Voice: But anecdotally, there's been times when they've been there for weeks.

Chief Toussaint: Oh yes. And so you take a person who's been in a mental health crisis and it's been determined they can't leave. They have to go to the hospital, so they're already at times in an agitated state. They may want to hurt themselves, want to hurt others. Now put them in a little emergency room. There's not much there, and you're sitting there and sitting and sitting for days waiting for a bed at the hospital. And you can't leave, so some of them get agitated and when they do we get called up, and again it's a two-man call and we come back to Frisbie and try to get them to calm down.

The Rochester Voice: You have to convince them to calm down or they go to jail, which you don't want to do and they don't want to do?

Chief Toussaint: Right, if someone is in a real mental health crisis, the last thing we want to do is send them to jail. At times it comes to that though, because if they become assaultive to the staff up there or threatening or violent sometimes, if they commit a crime up there, they have to go to jail

The Rochester Voice: Wow, that's eye opening

Chief Toussaint: But it's such a huge manpower drain, because all of those calls. Every time the hospital calls and say hey, we need some assistance over here, that's a two man call, that's drop what you're doing and go, because it's something going on right now.

So it's almost like a perfect storm over the past year, when we had such low staffing levels not to mention all those 11 that I hired? I had one guy deployed all year and he's still not back. I have three who were injured on or off the job and had medical procedure done so they're off the street.

The Rochester Voice: So the perfect storm is heroin, mental health and low staffing?

I would say low staffing, injuries, deployment, those all factor into low staffing but then you have an increase in our Priority I and II calls, they just rise.

The Rochester Voice: When you say Priority I and II, can you define those?

Chief Toussaint: Those are the ones that need attention. Not somebody smashed my mailbox with a baseball bat. This is something going on right now that needs to be addressed right now, so we bounce from call to call on those.

The Rochester Voice: Just a couple more questions, Chief. One, are body cams in the future for RPD?

Chief Toussaint: I would say probably sometime down the road they will be. But they're very expensive, not the camera, but the storage, the personnel to redact all these things. Because if we get a right to know request for video? Say officers are at a call and there's video and there's a bunch of juveniles. We have to blur out all the juveniles' faces.

So there' a lot of work and expense with storage. The cameras, themselves, are not cost prohibitive. It's the staffing and storing. Because these guys (our officers) are not sitting around. They're dealing with people constantly so it's hours and hours of video.

So I'm not opposed to it. It keeps cops and citizens honest and on their toes for the most part, but right now, it's not something I'm asking for.

The Rochester Voice: Tell me what it's like growing up a half mile from Rochester and now being the police chief in that city so close to your home.

Chief Toussaint: To me I have such pride in the people that work here. I would put this department up against any department in the state. These men and women of this department work their butts off all the time. And I don't think the average citizen realizes how much they work, but they put in more than an honest day's work for what they do and they do an incredible amount of just great work. It is such an honor for me to be able to lead this great department. We have a good relationship with the City Council. We have a good relationship with other departments in the city. There's no infighting, friction, it's just an amazing experience and I'm just honored to be able to take my place.

The Rochester Voice: Lastly, what's the best thing about being chief?

Chief Toussaint: It goes back to my last question. We do a lot of great work and I get credit for the outstanding work that these people do. Now on the flip side if something goes wrong I get blamed, but that doesn't happen so often. To be able to represent this group, that's the best part.

The Rochester Voice: And just one more. Looking back on before you became chief, can you tell us what was the best thing about that, as opposed to being chief?

Chief Toussaint: You know there are times where I'd miss - a lot of times - where I'd miss the days of being a patrolman and you go to work, do the job that you always wanted to do and at the end of the day you go home and you don't even think about it till your next shift. That's the big thing, that's the thing that you lose as you go up the ranks, cause there's constantly a concern in the back of your mind, are we doing everything we need to be doing?

The Rochester Voice: And I'm sure you probably wake up in the middle of the night and think how can I fix this or that?

Chief Toussaint: The job is never far from your mind, even if you're with your family or you're doing something fun, in the down moments it's right back there. That's the part that I miss the most.

The Rochester Voice: I wanted to end on a cheery note, I guess that's not really that cheery, but it is in a way, because that's the passion that you have.

Chief Toussaint: I love this job right now and I will do this job for as long as I do this job, but my next job I'm looking forward (pauses)

The Rochester Voice: To some quietude?

Chief Toussaint: (chuckles): Yeah.

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