Jim Kenyon: Hanover police deny public records request in Dartmouth protester arrests

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

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

Sian Beilock is the 19th president of Dartmouth College, taking over from Phil Hanlon last month after six years as president of Barnard College in New York City. “I really want to be a place where we can talk across differences,” said Beilock during an interview with Frances Mize, of the Valley News, at Parkhurst Hall in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. “Being uncomfortable is part of how we learn.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sian Beilock is the 19th president of Dartmouth College, taking over from Phil Hanlon last month after six years as president of Barnard College in New York City. “I really want to be a place where we can talk across differences,” said Beilock during an interview with Frances Mize, of the Valley News, at Parkhurst Hall in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. “Being uncomfortable is part of how we learn.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 01-12-2024 11:00 PM

Modified: 01-18-2024 9:53 AM


At around 1 a.m. on Oct. 28, Hanover police arrested two Dartmouth College students for criminal trespass on their own campus. After the student-activists were hauled away in handcuffs, cops involved in the encounter would have written a report with their version of what had happened leading up to the arrests.

Police reports are a vital source of information for the public to weigh when examining whether a criminal defendant’s actions merited a loss of their freedoms, which is at the core of any arrest.

There’s a lot about how Hanover police — and Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock’s administration — handled the incident that deserves public scrutiny.

For starters:

■Why were police in such a hurry to grant Dartmouth’s wishes to have freshman Kevin Engel and junior Grace Hillery removed from a tent on the lawn outside of Beilock’s office?

■Were Engel and Hillery, who were trying to raise awareness about the war in Gaza, armed? (They say they weren’t. Beilock maintains they were part of a student organization that had threatened “physical action” in some of its past writings.)

■Did Engel and Hillery do anything more than not leave their tent when Dartmouth administrators demanded they do so?

I hoped to find the answers in the police report the arrests generated. But almost 2½ months later, Hanover police and the town’s prosecutor still refuse to let the public see the report.

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What are they afraid of?

Dartmouth.

Hanover is a company town. What the college wants, it usually gets, even if it takes a while. (Last year’s town approval for Dartmouth to build dorms on its shuttered golf course comes to mind.)

What Dartmouth doesn’t want in this case is for Beilock to appear heavy-handed and intolerant of dissent. Having two students busted for what appears to have been a peaceful protest doesn’t fit well with her “Brave Spaces” initiative where everyone is supposed to feel welcome.

Unless Beilock is playing to the college’s conservative alums. Their on-campus bible, The Dartmouth Review, praised Beilock for her take-no-prisoners approach to students who dare exercise their constitutional rights through nonviolent civil disobedience.

To obtain a copy of the police report under the state’s public records law, I filed a right-to-know request with Hanover police and town prosecutor Mariana Pastore on Dec. 20.

Last Monday, I finally got an answer from the town’s legal counsel, Matthew Burrows, of Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell in Concord. Burrows argued the “disclosure of any such records would interfere with law enforcement proceedings and, furthermore, may impact the individuals’ right to a fair trial.”

Huh?

The Hanover police department’s investigative work in this case was finished months ago.

As for impacting Engel’s and Hillery’s right to a fair trial, they’re charged with a Class B misdemeanor. Both have pleaded not guilty. (On campus, Hillery is known as Roan Wade. She’s in the process of changing her legal name, but court records have her as Grace Hillery.)

Since the charge carries no jail time, Engel and Hillery can’t ask for a jury trial. The argument that releasing the police report before trial could taint a jury pool simply doesn’t hold water.

A New Hampshire judge will decide the case. I have a hard time believing any judge could be influenced by media reports ahead of trial about underlying criminal allegations that will come out in court anyway.

Burrows added that disclosure of information contained in the records would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

Whose privacy? Beilock and her subordinates who summoned police that night?

Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman, told me Thursday the college wouldn’t comment on an ongoing criminal matter.

After my public records request was denied, I sent Burrows some New Hampshire court decisions that allowed for the disclosure of information during a pending criminal case.

I also shared a 2023 Nashua police arrest report involving a criminal trespass charge that the city made public before the case was resolved. Under the right-to-know law, municipalities throughout New Hampshire consider police reports in active criminal cases a matter of public record.

Why not Hanover?

On Friday, Burrows told me via email that he was in the “process of reviewing” the additional documents with Hanover officials and will follow up soon.

Pastore, the town’s prosecutor, could have easily made the report available to the public by entering it into the defendants’ court files. Instead she punted, forwarding the Valley News’ public records request to Burrows, whose firm charges Hanover taxpayers $245 an hour for his legal services.

Engel and Hillery are scheduled to go on trial in Lebanon District Court on Feb. 26, starting at 1 p.m.

I suspect neither Dartmouth nor the town expected the case to get this far. The college had to have known the night they called police that it was unlikely Engel or Hillery, who come from modest backgrounds, could afford a private attorney. (Since it’s a Class B misdemeanor case, they’re not eligible for a public defender.)

The case is going to trial only because attorney Kira Kelley stepped up to represent them pro bono. Kelley, who graduated from Hanover High School in 2011, is a staff attorney with the Climate Defense Project, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.

I wish her luck. So far, I’ve I struck out trying to get Hanover to respect the state’s right-to-know law. Maybe she can persuade a judge that arresting two students for criminal trespass on their own campus was egregious as well.

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