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Unlike Vermont, New Hampshire state police don’t collect racial data for arrests

  • Members of the New Hampshire State Police Special Weapons and Tactics Team bomb squad block the entrance to the Twin Valley Estates mobile home park in Charlestown, N.H., just before opening the park back up to residents Tuesday, October 2, 2018. State Police executed a search warrant at a home in the park following an apparent shooting in Claremont, N.H., early Tuesday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson

Concord Monitor
Published: 10/18/2020 8:42:29 PM
Modified: 10/18/2020 8:42:25 PM

When it comes to compiling and analyzing data on state police stops and arrests, New Hampshire remains far behind neighboring Vermont.

The Granite State lacks a uniform database to track annual traffic stops, use-of-force incidents, arrests and other calls that could provide law enforcement, elected officials and members of the public with critical information to better assess the potential for bias in policing. While a commission of criminal justice, human rights and mental health experts recently called for improvements to current record keeping by police departments on a local level, it’s not pushing for a statewide mechanism to collect, maintain and analyze demographic data from police stops, citing burdensome financial costs.

Unlike in Vermont, law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire are not mandated to collect demographic data, such as race and gender, for encounters officers have with members of the public. The Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency Commission (LEACT) — formed by Gov. Chris Sununu in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police — is seeking to change that, and require agencies to release limited demographic data annually to their respective communities.

However, the data will not be centralized as it is in the Green Mountain State. Rather, in New Hampshire, each police department will continue to use a records management system of its choosing to gather and analyze the data, which must include, at minimum, the gender and race of every person arrested, cited or stopped by police.

“Everyone serving on the commission recognized the importance of solid, statewide data collection, and how it could be used to address gaps in training and racial disparities in policing,” said New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council Director John Scippa in a recent interview. “But the devil is in the details — there needs to be consistency in capturing the data to guarantee success in a meaningful way, and someone analyzing the data who is mathematically inclined and not just a member of a police agency trying to make sense of it all.”

“I think everyone here in New Hampshire looked at it from a pragmatic sense — and that is, how are you going to pay for it and who’s going to lead the effort?” he continued. “The way I heard the conversation is that everyone thought it would be great. But as we’re trying to be fiscally responsible as we also respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew this would be very costly.”

Because there is no state mandate, the New Hampshire Department of Safety says it does not maintain traffic stop and race data that is comparable to what is available in Vermont. Given the commission’s 48 recommendations, which were fully endorsed by Sununu, it’s possible those practices could change in the months ahead.

The Monitor requested further information from the Department of Safety on what type of data State Police does keep and how it is maintained, as well as what information is made available to the public, but those inquires went unanswered. In addition, multiple requests through the public information office for an interview with Commissioner of Safety Robert Quinn were also not returned.

Strategic Communications Administrator Paul D. Raymond said in a statement to the Monitor, “Commissioner Quinn was a member of LEACT and fully supports all the recommendations that came out of the task force, and we are actively working to determine which recommendations we can implement sooner rather than later without legislative authority or mandate.”

Lessons from Vermont

For years now, local, county and state law enforcement agencies in Vermont have done the very thing that continues to elude officials in New Hampshire. Since 2014, Vermont state law has mandated that police departments maintain traffic stop and race data. That data is received each fall by the Crime Research Group, a Vermont-based band of researchers, attorneys, college faculty and others with decades of experience in crime analysis. The group provides contracted services through the state’s Department of Public Safety, and makes the data available online.

Authorities are required to record the age, gender and race of a driver, the reason for the traffic stop, the type of search conducted and if any evidence was located, in addition to any subsequent civil or criminal action.

Vermont law enforcement officials say the data has been instrumental in its efforts to combat racial disparities in policing, but note the battle is far from won.

“We continue to make progress, but the latest data shows us that the racial disparities are still there,” said Vermont State Police Captain Garry Scott. “Ten or 15 years ago people would say, ‘We have so few people of color living in our state. There is no problem here.’ But we know how untrue that was, and the data shows us even today people of color are ticketed far more often than white drivers.”

Last year, white drivers made up 93% of the total stops by Vermont State Police, compared to Black operators at 2%, Asian operators at 2% and Hispanic operators at 1%.

Of those stopped, 37% received a ticket rather than a warning. Tickets went to 36% of the white drivers stopped, 42% of Black drivers, 49% of Asian operators, 45% of Hispanic drivers and 36% of Native American drivers, according to the data.

Reinforcing anti-bias training for troopers and talking to affected communities remains key as the state looks to bring those numbers down, Scott said.

“We don’t have an answer on why Black operators are ticketed at a higher rate but we are seeing that a lot are from out of state, and it’s something that we’re talking about and plan to delve deeper into,” he said. “We need to better understand how geographical factors may play a role. We can’t use our census data; rather, we have to look at who is on our roadways and why.”

Chittenden County — the state’s most populous county and home to the city of Burlington — is a hub for tourists and also the site of several colleges and universities. Those distinctions make the area more diverse than other counties in the mostly white state.

“We have to look closely at the mission we’re giving to our troopers who are patrolling those areas, as well as the individual trooper, his or her history and the particular time of day they’re working,” Scott said. “What if, for example, we have one trooper who is all about traffic enforcement and likes to do it, but has a high volume of Black operator stops. Then, we must ask, ‘Does the trooper have biases or is it the enforcement task that we’ve given him or her that, for some other reason, has produced these results.’ ”

One change on the horizon is that troopers will soon have the option to indicate whether they searched a passenger in the car even if the driver was not apprehended. Scott said that information is not currently required under state law but will help the agency get more accurate data about searches.

“That’s an interesting twist we didn’t think about when the Legislature made a mandate,” he said. “It’s easy to say there are issues with the search rate, when there may have been nothing found on the operator, but the passenger may have been the intended subject of the search all along.”

Fair policing

Even before the legislative mandate took effect in 2014, Vermont State Police had a long-established committee, called Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs, tasked with discussing biases in policing, hate-motivated crimes, enhanced opportunities for community policing in minority communities, as well as police officer training, recruitment and retention. Scott is director of the committee, whose members include representatives from several law enforcement and civil rights groups.

While the committee officially began its work in 2009, its origins date back several years earlier. In the mid-2000s, a survey circulated in the southern Vermont town of Brattleboro about whether residents had confidence in their police department, and felt that everyone received fair and equitable treatment from officers. Scott said the overwhelming response was that “police were doing a good job.”

But one man feared communities of color had not been reached through the initial questionnaire, and so he set out to conduct a follow-up survey. Curtiss Reed Jr., now executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and the original member of the policing committee, found the feedback was far different from minority communities.

It was around that same time that national conversations about racial profiling or “driving while Black” were gaining traction in Vermont, with editorials in state newspapers and community forums generating calls for police reform.

Scott grew up outside of Boston and became a police officer because he wanted to serve his community. When he first started working in the predominately white state of Vermont, race and ethnicity didn’t enter his mind. In retrospect, he realizes his error.

“I hear now stories about how people are afraid to come to police, about the lone Black person who lives in a white community — and they’re not calling us because they don’t think they’re going to be treated fairly,” he said. “That is very upsetting to me to think that my uniform is intimidating. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and it tells us we need to do better.”

Scott said fair and impartial policing is a priority and that each commander within Vermont State Police must incorporate action items into annual strategic plans.

“Because we’ve had a long-standing fair and impartial policing committee, we’re not so crisis driven,” he said. “It’s created far more opportunities for continued engagement with members of the community, and we’re all working toward a common goal of keeping our community safe.”

Carving a path forward

The national conversation in response to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis was cited by Sununu as one of the main drivers for the creation of a study commission on police transparency and accountability in New Hampshire. He said in June that the Granite State was not at a crisis point, but that it was a pivotal moment to assess areas for improvement and take action.

The Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency Commission issued a total of 48 recommendations in August. In an expansive executive order signed Oct. 7, Sununu directed state officials to act on 20 of the recommendations immediately, while the remaining 28 require legislation to fully implement.

One of those recommendations was for the creation of a statewide “misconduct database” for all officers. Sununu directed the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council to lead the effort. The system would track an officers’ career, including training, sustained findings of misconduct and movement to other agencies and decertification.

That database would need to be funded in the next two-year budget, set to be negotiated by lawmakers in 2021.

In his order, Sununu also directed law enforcement agencies to strengthen police training to include anti-bias instruction, increase oversight and reporting requirements for individual police officer misconduct, and chart a path forward to pay for body cameras for New Hampshire State Police, something the Department of Safety has repeatedly resisted.

Scippa, who remains in touch with the other law enforcement, mental health and civil rights experts who served on the governor’s commission, said he is focused on moving diligently through the list of recommendations and prioritizing those with the earliest deadlines. Much of his attention is focused on implicit bias, de-escalation, use-of-force and diversity training received by both new recruits and certified officers at the state’s only police academy in Concord.

“We’re using this as an opportunity to take a look at what we’re doing here and to see how we can do it better,” Scippa said. “It’s important that we do it right and create positive, lasting change.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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