Amherst police want undercover car

AMHERST – New Hampshire’s new law forbidding the use of handheld devices while driving goes into effect next summer, bringing enforcement problems to local police.

Amherst Police Chief Mark Reams told selectmen recently that his department needs a new undercover car to deal with distracted driving and other investigative tasks.

The hands-free electronic device law will be difficult to enforce, the chief told selectmen, and “the most luck we have had” with that kind of enforcement is with undercover cars.

State police operate several unmarked vehicles, he said, but there is little state police presence on the three state roads in town, because “they know we are very aggressive” on those roads, the chief said.

Last year there were 116 traffic deaths in New Hampshire attributed to distracted driving, he said, including that of a retired Amherst fire chief hit by a man allegedly texting on his phone.

John Bachman was killed in front of his Merrimack Road home while retrieving his mail last winter, and Travis Hobbs, 21, of Mont Vernon, has been indicted on felony charges for allegedly hitting him and leaving the scene.

Responding to demands that the state crack down on distracted driving, the Legislature passed a law that goes into effect July 1, 2015.

The department’s current undercover vehicle is 14 years old, and its replacement would have a $20,000 one-time cost. The request is part of Reams’ update to his department’s strategic plan he outlined for the board Sept. 22. Also in the plan is an increase in officer staff as part of the chief’s goal to restructure and improve patrol presence.

The big increase in commercial development on Route 101A has meant that service calls to Route 101A are up 40 percent over the past 10 years, and police aren’t able to patrol Amherst neighborhoods the way they should, he said. The department has 18 full-time officers, and there have been no additions to its patrol division since 1998.

Amherst is well below the federal and state average of 21.6 officers for comparable-sized communities, the chief said. and two officer positions proposed for 2015 and 2017 are now carried forward in his plan to fiscal years 2016 and 2018.

Selectman Tom Grella noted that the idea of hiring additional officers was proposed “three chiefs ago.”

The size of the police station is another issue. After the recent murder-suicide, state police had to use the fire department’s training room for interviews, said the police chief, because the police station no longer has a victim-assistance room. The ongoing study of a possible merger of the town’s fire and emergency medical services could help set a path for facilities planning, he said.

Reams’ PowerPoint presentation of his 2014-18 strategic plan shows four essential goals: improved communication and community services, increased quality and level of officer training, improved department efficiency and patrol coverage and improved facilities and equipment.

During the Sept. 22 meeting, selectmen also listened to the directors for the town library, community development and recreation department review updated plans for their departments.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673–3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@