BERLIN — After 35 years on the force, Berlin Police Chief Peter Morency retired Dec. 30, 2021. But his service to the community will continue — on Jan. 17, he will be sworn in as a city councilor.
Morency said his interest in law enforcement came from his father, who served 11 years on the Berlin police force. His father left the force because he had started a construction company on the side and it had grown.
Morency said his father hated to give up police work but with a growing family, construction work paid better. When he helped his father clean out his locker at the police station, Morency said it was the first time he had seen his father cry and it made an impression on him.
After high school, Morency said he went to work for his father’s company. But about six months later, his father died at only 40 years of age. Married and unemployed, Morency said he decided to try and get a job as a military police officer and joined the Army. He served a year but there were no positions available at the time and he left. After a couple of other jobs, he applied and got hired by the Berlin police in 1986.
“My heart always came back to police work,” Morency said.
He started as a patrolman and worked his way up through the ranks, becoming chief in 2002. As a cop, he became concerned about the drug epidemic facing the state and region. Hearing about the work of the N.H. Drug Task Force, made up of investigators from law enforcement agencies across the state, Morency asked if he could apply to serve with them as a member of the Berlin Police Department. In all, Morency spent 10 years working with the task force. For three of those years he was undercover, tracking cases as far as Mexico and California.
He reluctantly left the task force when then-Chief Alan Tardif asked him to accept the position of lieutenant and become part of the department’s administration.
“I felt like I was making a difference,” he said, about his time on the drug task force.
The COVID-19 pandemic has grabbed the public’s attention but Morency said illegal drugs continue to ravage this country, and this region is not spared. The availability and low cost of fentanyl and its potency have made New Hampshire among the Top 10 states in the nation for drug overdose-related deaths in 2019.
The latest statistics from the N.H. Drug Monitoring Initiative shows that Coos County leads the state’s 10 counties in the number of overdose deaths per capita, with 2.4 deaths per 10,000 people from January through Sept. 16, 2021. Overdose deaths in 2021 were reported in Berlin, Gorham, Milan, Lancaster and Stratford, with fentanyl by far responsible for most overdose deaths.
Morency pointed out that Coos County also has among the state’s highest numbers for EMS administration of Narcan from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021.
Morency said he doesn’t believe there is a single solution to the drug problem.
“Different methods work for different people,” he said, adding that “jail isn’t the answer.”
He cited a lack of funding as part of the problem and said the state has failed to provide sufficient substance abuse and mental health treatment, saying people should not have to wait for days to get assistance.
The city has joined several class-action lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors deemed responsible for the opioid epidemic and at least one settlement has been reached. Morency said when it is finalized, most of New Hampshire’s share of the settlement goes to the state to distribute. With its small population, he said very little of the money finds its way to Coos County.
“When it comes to funding, we’re at the bottom,” he said.
Morency said the toughest cases for him were the sexual assaults and injuries to kids. He cited Roger Dana’s murder of his 2-year-old daughter in 2016 as a recent example. Testimony at Dana’s trial said the victim had dozens of injuries and bruises and had been sexually assaulted.
Morency talked about the difficulty of comforting a dying person when you know they are not going to survive and trying to defuse a domestic violence situation.
“This job is tough,” he said, pointing out that officers are often called upon to make split-second decisions in life-threatening situations. As chief, Morency said his biggest fear was having an officer killed in the line of duty. He is thankful to have escaped that tragedy but said the worry was always present.
He said officers try their best to handle calls and are trained to treat people with respect. But Morency said sometimes people want the police to fix their lives. Frequently in two-party situations, he said neither party is satisfied with the response.
If police get to see people at their worst, Morency said they also see people who rise to the occasion. He said there are also a lot of success stories and talked about the satisfaction of finding a lost kid, helping an elderly person, and saving a life.
A Berlin native, Morency said most residents are caring, hardworking people who help one another as needed.
Berlin police organized a kickball game with students in grades 6-12 this summer and the department has tried to do other activities with kids as a way to connect with them. Morency said he would like to see the School Resource Officer position restored. The officer worked with middle school students, trying to reach younger kids and steer them away from drugs.
Morency is a golfer and said the game has been a way for him to go out and meet people without the uniform.
“The public gets to see us as regular people,” he said.
Morency said he is thankful for all the support he received over the years from residents and the city. He said he leaves behind a well-trained and professional department and expressed his confidence in Daniel Buteau who was officially sworn in as chief on Jan. 6 after years as deputy chief.
On his last day of work, Morency was driven home with a police escort that included a salute from Berlin firefighters as his cruiser passed the fire station. Next Monday, he will become City Councilor Peter Morency, still serving his city.