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Former Portsmouth police officer charged in assault that victim says was racist attack

Aaron Goodwin, seen here in a 2015 file photo, was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct Friday.
file photo
Aaron Goodwin, seen here in a 2015 file photo, was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct Friday.

A former Portsmouth police officer has been arrested in connection with an alleged assault on a Black business leader who says he was the victim of a racist attack.

Aaron Goodwin was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct Friday, the New Hampshire State Police said in a press release. Two others — Kevin Goodwin and Shannon Goodwin, both of Maryland — were also charged in connection with the alleged assault.

Community and civil rights leaders rallied around the victim, Mamadou Dembele, after he said he was attacked by an unknown white assailant in downtown Portsmouth last November.

The New Hampshire Attorney General Office's Civil Rights Unit, which investigates alleged hate crimes, was involved in the investigation. A spokesperson for the unit did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the arrests.

Goodwin, 45, was fired from the Portsmouth police department in 2015 after officials alleged he exerted undue influence on an elderly woman with dementia who left him a $2 million inheritance.

Dembele’s attorney, Robin Melone, said on Friday that her client was “grateful” for the arrest.

“The arrest is just step one,” Melone said in a written statement. “We will continue to respect that the process takes time, but are fully invested in justice for Mamadou and the community members impacted by Goodwin’s conduct.”

Police say the attack occurred at a diner on the evening of Nov. 22, 2023 — the night before Thanksgiving. Dembele said at the time that his assailant used language that made it clear the attack was racist. According to the New Hampshire state police, Portsmouth police officers encountered Aaron Goodwin on site shortly after the assault and, realizing that he was a former Portsmouth officer, asked state police to investigate the incident to avoid any conflict.

The attack left Dembele — a vice president at Bangor Savings Bank — wearing a leg brace and walking with a cane, and became a rallying cry for civil rights leaders across the state, who said it underscored the fears and risks faced by people of color in New Hampshire.

Reverend Robert Thompson, the president of the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP, said expressing those realities was an important part of the movement toward justice. 

“When you’re able to tell your truth, that is strengthening,” he said. “We were able to tell our truth about this and communicate our ongoing concerns as Black men in New Hampshire.”

Thompson said an increase in divisive and incendiary rhetoric in the past several years has created more wariness. 

“Many of us have felt increasingly uneasy because the lid on American racism has been removed because of former President Trump’s example,” he said. 

Thompson said officials’ efforts to be fair and avoid conflicts based on the relationship between the Portsmouth Police and Goodwin caused a long wait between the incident and the arrest. 

“All of us know that saying from Dr. King…’Justice delayed is justice denied,’” he said. “There’s a great deal of wariness and perhaps cynicism that comes to play when we talk about justice and the police.”

But, Thompson said, it was important and encouraging for an arrest to be made in the case.

For JerriAnne Boggis, the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, the delay between the alleged attack and the arrest was striking. 

“Especially if we look at if the roles were reversed and it was a person of color who attacked a white man in our neighborhood the way Mamadou was attacked, we feel, and evidence shows, that there wouldn’t have been a real long time lapse before that arrest,” she said. 

But, she said, the arrest feels like the “beginning of the journey towards justice,” noting that the question of whether the incident will be considered a hate crime is going to be part of the case going forward. 

Boggis said it’s been encouraging to see the ways institutions and community members have come together in support of Dembele. 

“There is a visible voice for African Americans, for Black folks, people of color in our state now that did not exist before,” she said. “The community of color and our allies came together and rallied and said, ‘this should not be happening in our state. We won’t tolerate this.'"

In a brief phone interview Friday evening, Goodwin said: “I’m not being charged with anything race related or any hate crime. I was acting out of defense of others and myself.”

A spokesman for the New Hampshire State Police declined to provide NHPR with copies of the charges or supporting documents late Friday afternoon, deferring to the courts.

Police say Goodwin, who lives in Eliot, Maine, surrendered Friday and was released on personal recognizance bail. He is scheduled to appear in Portsmouth District Court on April 22. In addition to Aaron Goodwin, police also issued arrest warrants for Kevin Goodwin, 42, and Shannon Goodwin, 37, both of Dundalk, Maryland. Both are charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct. State police say they are still working to take Kevin and Shannon Goodwin into custody.

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Updated: March 17, 2024 at 8:29 PM EDT
This story was updated on Sunday, March 17 with quotes from Reverend Robert Thompson and JerriAnne Boggis.
Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.