Tensions over the fate of the tiny New Hampshire town’s one-man police force had already been running high, with local news outlets chronicling board resignations and heated meetings.

It all erupted anew Tuesday when Croydon’s three-person town board voted to abolish the department for good and shift its work to state police – a move that led the community’s lone officer to march out of town hall in his underwear.

Ousted Police Chief Richard Lee says members of the board turned to the topic without warning at the 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 to Tuesday’s blowup, the details are in dispute. Lee says the board did not protest his half-clothed exit; 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 people.

“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 name. 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. In March, according to the Valley News, townspeople voted 48-36 to contract police services from nearby Newport – and ditch Lee – as a board member described complaints about how their police chief used his time.

“I obviously don’t want it to turn into a circus,” the board member 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 121-51 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.

“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 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 referred The Post to meeting minutes, which state that New Hampshire police already covered 81% of Croydon’s needs.

But Lee maintains 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 that 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 were reinstated. But if he did, he said, he would make sure to stock his office with a change of clothes.


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