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Jim Kenyon: Cops’ approach to NH transparency bill show aversion to accountability

  • 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: 1/19/2021 9:59:26 PM
Modified: 1/19/2021 9:59:24 PM

After suffering two setbacks in the state’s highest court last year, New Hampshire’s rank-and-file cops and police chiefs are pulling out all stops to avoid increased public scrutiny.

On Tuesday, the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee held a lengthy hearing on Senate Bill 39, which would undo a pair of state Supreme Court decisions issued last May. The rulings, issued simultaneously, were hailed as a major victory for advocates of police reform.

The decisions overturned the court’s 1993 interpretation of the New Hampshire right-to-know law that categorically exempted government employees’ personnel records, including disciplinary files, from being released to the public.

In its decisions, the court wrote that the 1993 interpretation “substantially undermines the guarantees protected by the Right-to-Know Law and reduces its defining goals to lip service.”

The court ruled that going forward, police personnel records must be subjected to a so-called “balancing test” that weighs the public interest in disclosure against any privacy or governmental interests in nondisclosure.

Under the proposed legislation, however, the state would revert back to where it’s been since at least 1993: Nearly all police records, including internal investigations into alleged misconduct, would remain secret.

Although the legislative fight has just begun, cops have already lined up a powerful ally. Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, is the bill’s sponsor. As chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she’s in prime position to jam the proposal through the Legislature. Carson, a 20-year Statehouse veteran, has close ties to the law enforcement community. The New Hampshire Troopers Association and the Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association each contributed $1,000 to her most recent reelection campaign, New Hampshire Secretary of State campaign finance reports show.

She was also endorsed by the New Hampshire Police Association, which represents rank-and-file members of the law enforcement community.

On Tuesday, Carson told her committee that “just because you become a police officer, doesn’t mean you give up your constitutional rights.”

Opening up police records will have a “chilling effect on recruitment and retention,” she added.

Lawyers for the nonprofit organizations that represent police in Concord also weighed in. “We want to be transparent, but we also want to protect our members at the same time,” said Marc Beaudoin, who along with being an attorney is a state police detective.

With the New Hampshire Troopers Association firmly behind the bill, keeping it from becoming law will be a challenge. The nonprofit organization has deep pockets. Largely through private fundraising and membership dues, it collected $1.4 million in total revenue in 2018, according to its most recent IRS filing.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is helping lead the fight against the bill. If enacted, the bill would “further the impression that police departments protect bad officers and hide misconduct from the public — an impression that undermines trust and confidence in law enforcement,” Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director, wrote in a statement to the Judiciary Committee.

“In this historic moment of conversation about police accountability nationally and here in New Hampshire, we should be making police records more transparent, not less transparent,” Bissonnette argued.

In June, Gov. Chris Sununu established the New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police on May 25.

In August, the commission, which included Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, issued 48 recommendations, including creating a “Public Integrity Unit” in the Attorney General’s Office. It would investigate and prosecute alleged criminal conduct by government officials, including police officers. (Where the money to staff the unit has yet to be determined.)

Carson’s bill “flies in the face of the Commission’s work and its recommendations to enhance transparency by shielding, without exception, important police records — including records evidencing sustained misconduct — from public view,” Bissonnette argued.

To show how things work in Concord, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, with Dennis as its president, supported the commission’s recommendations in August. But on Tuesday, the organization pirouetted.

Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, who succeeded Dennis as president, testified in support of the bill, claiming that it’s needed to “safeguard the personal information of officers.”

The bill also takes aim at a decision that came out of Grafton County Superior Court in December. Judge Peter Bornstein ordered Canaan officials to turn over a 2018 investigative report into alleged misconduct by one of the town’s officers.

In 2017, Samuel Provenza was involved in a roadside encounter with Canaan resident Crystal Eastman, who was taken from the scene that afternoon by ambulance to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where she’s undergone two surgeries for a torn ACL.

The dashboard video camera in Provenza’s cruiser should have captured the encounter, but Canaan officials have said that it hadn’t been manually activated that day.

At an expense of $6,000 to Canaan taxpayers, the Selectboard hired an outside consulting company to conduct an internal investigation. In July, Provenza sued Canaan to block it from releasing the report. He’s appealed the Superior Court’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

After I was unsuccessful in getting the report made public, the ACLU of New Hampshire agreed to represent the Valley News at no cost.

Where’s Provenza now?

In 2019, he left Canaan to become a New Hampshire state trooper.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.c om.




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