By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu addressed members of the new Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency Monday charging them to seek public input to improve policing practices in New Hampshire.
The commission comes after several weeks of protests here and around the world, sparked by the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police and an international outcry over racial injustice.
“This moment demands change from the bottom up,” Sununu said. “That is where we are going to get the best results. Every idea is on the table. Nothing is taboo.”
He asked the commission to seek input from the public and will focus on three core areas:
A. Training curriculum, procedures, and policies for police. De-escalation, use of deadly and nondeadly force, and diversity training.
B. Reporting police misconduct. Development of a uniform statewide system for reporting misconduct.
C. The current state of relations between law enforcement and the community.
Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, chairman, said Sununu is asking for a report in 45 days.
“It is a very challenging charge of the ground we need to cover substantively,” MacDonald said. “Our process must be open and transparent.”
He suggested the commission tackle the first issue “A” of police training, policies, and procedures on Thursday at 10 a.m. Then, they will hear from state police, local and police standards on their policies and their ideas on the possible improvement of those standards.
Additionally, the public will have a chance to provide input on those suggestions and ideas of their own on Friday at 2 p.m.
More information can be obtained here: https://www.governor.nh.gov/accountability
Sununu thanked the commissioners for volunteering for this important task.
“In New Hampshire, we sit in a very fortunate position,” Sununu said, noting the state has among the best law enforcement in the country which he said “set the gold standard.”
Unlike other states, all New Hampshire law enforcement officers receive the same, standardized training.
“There is always a chance to do more,” Sununu said. “This is an opportunity to get it right…to get positive engagement from communities across the state,” Sununu said.
Tuesday was the commission’s organizational meeting, remotely, under the state’s right-to-know Law, due to the pandemic. Sununu announced the names of the commission members hours before the meeting.
The commission includes:
– Robert Quinn, Commissioner of the Department of Safety
– Ahni Malachi, Executive Director, New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights
– John Scippa, Director, Police Standards and Training Council
– Rogers Johnson, Chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion
– James McKim, President of the Manchester NH NAACP
– Sawako Gardner, Justice of the New Hampshire Circuit Court
– Mark Morrison, New Hampshire Police Association
– Charlie Dennis, President, New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police
– Ken Norton, Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness – New Hampshire
– Devon Chaffee, Executive Director, ACLU New Hampshire
– Julian Jefferson, Attorney, New Hampshire Public Defender’s Office
The two public members are:
– Eddie Edwards of Dover
– Ronelle Tshiela of Manchester
Tshiela of Manchester is an organizer with Black Lives Matter. Sununu spoke highly of Tshiela at a recent news conference.
Edwards was the former head of liquor enforcement in the state from 2005-2013 and prior to that a former police chief in South Hampton.
He was a 2018 Republican candidate for Congress in District 1, a seat won by Democrat Chris Pappas of Manchester.
Just before the pandemic hit the state in mid-March, Sununu announced Edwards as his nominee for the position of executive director for the state Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, a $112,000 a year position. A public hearing, scheduled for March 25, was never held. The Executive Council continues to meet remotely, due to COVID-19 and has yet to reschedule or vote on the nomination.
It has been publicly opposed by Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Democratic candidate for governor, who says the Edwards nomination would be purely political. Volinsky said Edwards is not qualified for the top licensure job.
Chaffee, as executive director of the New Hampshire ACLU, worked first in its Washington, D.C., office to stop bias policing, prisoner abuse, privacy violations, and free speech infringement, according to the ACLU website.
Morrison, a Londonderry Police Lieutenant, spoke at a rally in support of law enforcement this past weekend on the State House lawn. Also from law enforcement is Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis who is chair of the state chiefs of police.
The commission has established a website (below) and email at email@example.com
The meeting was audio-recorded and they will be available following the conclusion of the meetings at https://www.governor.nh.gov/accountability
Meetings can also be accessed by the public telephonically using the dial-in information below:
Call-in: 1-800-356-8278 or 1-857-444-0744
Enter one of the following 6 digit conference codes:
When prompted, clearly state your first and last name as well as if you are a member of the public or which organization/agency you represent.
Any member of the public having difficulty accessing the telephonic public meeting should contact the Department of Justice at (603) 271-1202.
Sen. Levesque Weighs In
In a public comment section of the meeting at its conclusion, state Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, updated the commission on legislation to ban choke-holds and other police practices that are currently working their way through the legislative process.
“I also heard something about putting guidelines in place through executive orders…they are temporary. Why aren’t there legislators from both parties entering the discussion?” Levesque asked.
MacDonald said he envisions legislation to be a work product of the commission.
“We are grateful for your participation, Senator,” MacDonald said.
Sununu said he is not sure what it is going to look like and said a collaborative approach and buy-in by police “gives me a lot of hope.”
Sununu, whose idea it was to put forth the commission as other states are doing, said there is a lot of interest in aspects of reporting and tracking police conduct that should be addressed, here.
“There is always a lot more work to do,” he said, urging the commission to “let us know” what we can practically achieve. While he said not everything might be achievable, it might provide a pathway forward.
In New Hampshire, which has held largely peaceful protests over the outrage felt over the death of George Floyd, an African American man in police custody in Minnesota, the state takes a collaborative approach to differences and difficulty, Sununu said at the outset of the meeting.
“This is not something we fight over,” Sununu said. “We join hands.” Sununu said he was “very excited to see what we can come up within the next 45 days.”
Jill Perillo of the Attorney General’s office gave a 23-page PowerPoint presentation on the state’s right-to-know law to get all commissioners up to speed on RSA: 91-A and the penalties for not complying which she noted are substantial.
“Openness is essential,” Perillo said, to public bodies and their accountability to people, furthered by the Constitution. Records are open to the public, she stressed. Subcommittees may meet but still need to comply with the law. The work of the commission cannot be done outside the public meetings, she stressed.
“Where people trip up on this is email,” Perillo said. It is not OK nor is it OK to forward information which is the substance of the business of the commission. She also warned if there was a quorum at say, the governor’s Easter Egg Hunt, it would be wrong to discuss any business of the board there, though being there for the egg hunt would be fine.
She noted that the commission needs to give public notice 24 hours before a meeting, minutes have to be taken and the public is allowed to access the meeting, at least telephonically during a pandemic, where remote participation is also allowed for commissioners as well.
Emergency Order #12 signed by the governor allows for such an in-person waiver due to the pandemic. Every vote must also be by roll call in this situation. A public hearing opportunity is a good idea, Perillo said, but not required for every meeting and every issue.
A nonpublic session is very limited but common reasons for them are for the dismissal, discipline or hiring an employee, pending litigation, financial disclosure or to protect someone’s reputation, Perillo said.
She said the Attorney General’s Office can be helpful to keep the commission within the law.
Minutes are the commission’s permanent record and though no requirements for a verbatim discussion exist, it must include votes, and summaries of issues and posting them on a website or other public means. The public has a right to those records in a timely fashion, she noted.
Penalties for violating the public’s right to know range from being liable to cost, attorneys fee, can invalidate actions, and officers can have a civil penalty assessed for bad faith, she noted.