The Portsmouth NH 400 is bringing a lot more than just events to the City of Portsmouth. It’s also bringing a wave of visitors. Helping manage that influx while keeping the community safe is a key responsibility of the Portsmouth Police Department, which is now led by Police Chief Mark Newport, the first African American to hold that post.
“When I talk to people from other agencies and tell them that we have a community of 23,000 residents, but we have 70 police officers, they ask, how do you justify that?” Newport explains. “Well, come to our city. We have the most liquor licenses per capita in the state. We have way more restaurant seats and hotel accommodations than residents in our city. So, we’re busy.”
During an event, Portsmouth’s population can easily swell to five times its size. Such challenges are a lot different from what Newport experienced when he first joined the police force in 1995.
“When I first started, it was really a blue-collar town. Now it’s very affluent. Back then Portsmouth wasn’t such a desirable place to live. Then we started investing in the community and developing it. Now it’s a quaint, seaside community and a tourist destination. We’re in event mode from March until the end of the year,” Newport observes.
Newport of all people knows that places don’t just change without dedicated initiative, investment and time. When he arrived in New Hampshire as a University of New Hampshire student playing football for the Wildcats in the 1990s, he never thought he’d end up staying in the Granite State. “There were roughly 12,000 students and I’d probably be exaggerating if I told you there were 50 Black students,” he reflects. “If you told me back then that I would live in New Hampshire, I would have told you that you were nuts.”
But leaving the state after college to volunteer with AmeriCorps made him realize how much he had grown to love this place and the quality of life. Living an hour from Boston on the Seacoast and an hour from the White Mountains really felt like “the best of all worlds.”
But it wasn’t just Portsmouth’s ecological diversity that kept Newport around. He also saw the way Portsmouth had invested not just in its infrastructure but in its people. “Portsmouth is committed to being a racial justice city. They’ve invested in diversity, equity and inclusion within the city. They’re not just saying it, but they’re actually trying to do it,” Newport says.
“There’s a lot of Black history here in Portsmouth,” he continues. “More so than I even know. When people come here, they’re kind of in awe. The African Burial Ground, the Black Heritage Trail — there’s a lot of history here, reaching back to more than 400 years. So, I think when people come here, and they see all the diversity that has been here in the past and the present … they might not see a melting pot, but they can feel comfortable and safe. Our police department is very visible, people see us all around, and not in a bad way. We like to be visible and to have our officers out there, engaging with the community. After George Floyd, there are a lot of communities that don’t have that — it was more of an ‘us versus them.’ We want to be a part of the fabric of our community, and we want the community to be the fabric of our department.”
Becoming the first Black police chief in January 2020 at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the national racial justice reckoning that ensued after the death of George Floyd gave Newport plenty of challenges during his first year. But he’s taken them in stride.
“The only way you can make effective change is to get yourself involved in it. With the experiences I’ve had in life, I’ve been very fortunate, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing. There have been bumps and hurdles. But it’s all about how you handle them and how you deal with them. Whether you let them hold you back or you just keep pushing forward. This has always been my mentality,” Newport says.
Newport has one main hope for Portsmouth’s next 400 years: that it continues to grow into a diverse, inclusive and multicultural city where all feel welcome. “I think Portsmouth is on the cusp of becoming a world-renowned city. And I think 20 years from now maybe it will be that city. We have people coming from all over the world. The city has so much to offer that it would be selfish for us to try to keep this in a bubble and keep it all to ourselves.
“Honestly, I think it’s a model city that a lot of other places can learn from,” says Newport. “And it hasn’t always been that way. It took the right leadership and the right engagement from the community. And the community is invested within the city. It takes both sides to make that happen and make the city the way it is.”
This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.
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