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Jim Kenyon: Former Claremont cop’s records should be open to voters

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/12/2020 9:45:06 PM
Modified: 9/12/2020 9:45:04 PM

As the old saying goes, what’s past is past. And Claremont City Councilor Jonathan Stone would like to keep a lid on his past — at least the part about when he was a police officer in his hometown more than a decade ago.

Stone, the Republican candidate for the Sullivan County District 10 seat in the New Hampshire House, has taken legal action to block the city from releasing information about his apparently less-than-stellar record as a Claremont cop in the early 2000s.

It’s unclear what’s in Stone’s personnel file that he wants to keep secret. He left the department in 2007.

All that’s come out so far is a letter Claremont City Manager Ed Morris sent last month to InDepthNH, a nonprofit news website, in response to a public records request. According to InDepthNH, Morris disclosed that Stone had faced 11 investigations that resulted in “sustained” findings of wrongdoing while he was a Claremont police officer.

Morris didn’t elaborate on the nature of the investigations, but he hinted that Stone could have violated city or state rules regarding police standards and operating procedures.

Did the wrongdoing involve the excessive use of force or other misconduct?

Without more details, the public is left in the dark.

I tried contacting Stone last week to ask him about the investigations’ findings, but I didn’t hear back.

On Sept. 1, Stone’s attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, filed a motion in Sullivan Superior Court seeking an injunction to prevent the city from releasing further information. A video hearing with Judge Brian Tucker is scheduled for Thursday.

Up until four months ago, the chances of the public getting a glimpse of a New Hampshire police officer’s disciplinary records were virtually nil.

In late May, however, the state Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings that could potentially lead to greater transparency into the inner workings of taxpayer-funded police departments.

In Seacoast Newspapers v. City of Portsmouth and Union Leader v. Town of Salem, the state’s highest court overturned a 1993 decision that “resulted in a broad category of governmental documents being withheld from public inspection.” Looking back, the 1993 decision was “contradictory to our state’s principles of open government,” the court stated.

You can be assured, however, that cops — with the financial backing of the police unions that for years have shielded them from public scrutiny — will continue to put up legal roadblocks.

In fact, it’s already begun.

Former Canaan police officer Sam Provenza, who is now a New Hampshire state trooper, is suing to stop the town from releasing the findings of an internal affairs investigation into a 2017 traffic stop.

In a case that I’ve written about previously, Crystal Eastman, a Canaan resident, suffered a serious knee injury during the encounter that required her to be taken from the scene in an ambulance and undergo two surgeries. A dashboard video camera should have captured the encounter, but the camera wasn’t working that day, Canaan officials say.

The Valley News has gone to court to prevent an outside consultant’s report, which cost Canaan taxpayers more than $6,000, from permanently being kept confidential. The American Civil Liberties of New Hampshire is representing the paper pro bono.

In a court brief, ACLU staff attorney Henry Klementowicz argued “police officers are public servants who, when performing their official duties, serve the public, not themselves; they do not have the same privacy rights as regular citizens or even other public employees.”

Under the Supreme Court’s rulings in May, “only a narrow set of governmental records” are exempt from disclosure. How narrow remains to be seen.

“The law needs to be developed more,” Decato, Stone’s attorney, said in a phone interview. “We don’t have enough guidance.”

In determining what internal police records are available to the public, government entities must now “balance the private interests (of a police officer) against the public’s interests,” Decato said.

I’d argue the balancing test should always favor taxpayers, no matter the officer. Although he’s no longer with the department, Stone shouldn’t be able to hide his record as a police officer once he entered politics. After being elected to the City Council in 2017, he’s now running for the citywide House seat that Democrat John Cloutier has held since 1992.

Stone is a public figure conducting the public’s business, just as he was when he was a police officer. Voters have a right to know a candidate’s background before casting their ballots.

Moreover, the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, on a Minneapolis street in May has brought police misconduct to the forefront.

Stone is asking Claremont residents to elect him to the 400-seat House that will have a big say in whether New Hampshire gets serious about enacting police reform measures. His background as a cop is relevant.

On Thursday, I saw a smattering of “Vote Stone” yard signs around Claremont. It was among a bevy of political signs for Republican candidates in front of Black Op Arms, the firearms and ammunition store on Washington Street that Stone helps run.

On my way out of town, I stopped at the Sullivan County Republicans office in Opera House Square, where I chatted with Paul LaCasse, who is running for Claremont’s District 4 House seat.

LaCasse said he wasn’t familiar with Stone’s work as a police officer, but didn’t think recent stories would hurt his election chances. Generally speaking, “there are times when a police officer can’t be a nice guy,” LaCasse said. “He’s enforcing the law.”

Stone’s past may or may not disqualify him from serving in Concord. That’s for Claremont voters to decide — but they deserve a chance to make an informed decision.

The more information made available to them between now and November, the better.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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