Ousted police chief Richard Lee says members of the board turned to the topic without warning at the tail end of a public meeting, ordering him to hand over his uniform, badge, cruiser key and more “immediately.” So he stripped off his turtleneck, ballistic vest and pants, he said.
Clad in a shirt, hat, briefs and boots, Lee recounted, he said “see ya” and walked out into a nighttime snowstorm — turning away three townspeople’s offers of a lift to walk almost a mile before someone called his wife.
Like so much of the drama that led up to Tuesday’s blowup, the details are in dispute. Lee says the board did not protest his half-clothed exit, after the Valley News reported that he’d said otherwise; the board’s chairman, Russell Edwards, told The Washington Post that he insisted twice that the strip-down was not necessary.
However the episode went down, it has sown confusion and discord in the community of less than 800.
“What kind of a town lets their chief of police walk out in a snowstorm in his underwear?” one resident, Rick Sampson, told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Lee says he’s come to love Croydon since becoming its sole law enforcement officer in 2000, working out of a cramped office at town hall. He knows everyone’s names. One elderly woman, he said, even entrusted him with an envelope meant to be opened upon her death.
He lives seven miles away in Newport, and used to serve on that town’s police force.
But things in Croydon began to sour a few years back, he recounted, when he clashed with the board about his performance. Last year, townspeople voted 48 to 36 to contract police services from nearby Newport — and ditch Lee — as a board member described complaints about how their police chief used his time, according to the Valley News.
“I obviously don’t want it to turn into a circus,” the board member, Gary Quimby, said as questions swirled about the vote’s legality.
The fallout was just starting.
Rising to Lee’s defense, other townspeople forced a special vote that overturned the decision, 121 to 51, after a bitter fight. “This work is affecting my children,” the board’s administrative assistant wrote in a statement explaining her resignation last spring, according to the Valley News. Shortly after that, Quimby and another board member stepped down as well.
“This whole thing is sickening,” another resident told the newspaper. “It’s ripping our community apart.”
Lee said he’d simply gone about his business as usual. Some weeks, he said, “all heck breaks loose.” Other times he can go two weeks with just a few speeding tickets, “driving around the countryside and enjoying the deer and the birds and the trees.”
Officials say they finally voted this week to cut Lee’s job in search of a better return on their investment.
“We didn’t feel we were getting the value for our money,” Edwards told the Union Leader. On Thursday, he simply referred The Post to meeting minutes, which state that New Hampshire police already covered 81 percent of Croydon’s needs.
But Lee says that his last week was a busy one and that he’s not sure what will happen to pending criminal cases for which he was set to appear in court. He told The Post that he’s refused to hand over his case files to the board, calling them confidential materials he’ll only give to the county attorney.
The county attorney did not immediately clarify how cases will move forward, and Tuesday’s meeting minutes say only that the town board will look into the matter.
Accusing the board of dissolving the police department just to get rid of him, Lee said he’s talking to a lawyer and suggested that this week’s vote may violate New Hampshire’s requirement that police chiefs be dismissed with cause.
Meeting minutes say he’ll get a month’s severance.
Lee told The Post that his phone has been ringing constantly with supportive calls from friends in Croydon, not to mention reporters chasing a story gone national. He said he’s been so busy he had to delay his search for a new job.
He doesn’t think he’d go back to Croydon even if the police department was reinstated. But if he did, he said, he would make sure to stock his office with a change of clothes.