By CATHERINE MCLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – In the weeks since the death of George Floyd, issues of law enforcement reform and the young activists who demand it have risen to the forefront of national and local attention.
To address the issue in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu has established the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency and appointed activist Ronelle Tshiela to serve on it.
Tshiela, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester and a student at the University of New Hampshire, was appointed as a public member. She co-founded the organization with a friend in 2016 while in high school after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the custody of police.
Exactly how the commission’s recommendations will be formed remains unclear, but Tshiela hopes that all voices will come together with effectual ideas for long-lasting change in the state.
“I’m hoping everyone’s recommendations are really taken into consideration and everyone’s voice is heard,” Tshiela said in an interview with InDepthNH.org
Tshiela has been organizing, protesting, and talking with community leaders in support of police accountability and racial justice. She helped organize the June 6 protest in Manchester attended by thousands of Granite Staters.
By engaging an array of community stakeholders and government officials, the commission, chaired by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, will formulate recommendations for police reforms by the end of 45 days.
When Sununu announced the commission last Tuesday, he highlighted its array of community stakeholders as the source of its strength. See list of members and meeting information here: https://www.governor.nh.gov/accountability
Yet the original list of members did not include a representative of the young community activists, who have been among the most visible and influential voices on police reform in the weeks since George Floyd’s death.
Two days later, Sununu said he had reached out to Tshiela to serve.
“Black Lives Matter has been one of the leading voices on this issue in the last month,” Sununu said. He commended Tshiela and her organization for having the “right message at the right time in the right way,” that has “resonated throughout the entire state.”
That a representative of the Black Lives Matter movement was not initially included on the commission is something that Tshiela said she found “disappointing, considering that we have really driven the conversation here in New Hampshire.”
This lack of inclusion was at first a “red flag” to Tshiela that the State House might not be as supportive of law enforcement reform as she hoped, but she says her appointment is a positive step.
“I am excited and anxious to see what it will be like, it’s my first time doing something like this,” she said.
Tshiela has some reservations about being the youngest person on the commission, but she said she is ready to work with the array of stakeholders and to stand her ground on her beliefs.
Though excited to work alongside representatives from many New Hampshire organizations, she said the commission appears to over-represent voices of law enforcement.
“I am going to have to be strong and be convictive in my beliefs and what I think needs to change,” she said.
“Police representatives, in general, tend to be against the work that we do as Black Lives Matter,” she said. “We will have to compromise, though there will be things that I as well as others are not willing to budge on.”
Director of the Police Standards and Training Council John V. Scippa, who also will serve on the commission, said in an email that he is excited to work with peer community stakeholders who will “bring tremendous value and perspective to the discussion,” and that he is honored to have been appointed.
For Tshiela, the collection of voices on the commission represents an opportunity for meaningful action. “Everyone really does have a seat at the table this time. We are all coming together for a reason,” she said. “I’m hoping that it’s not just a conversation but that reform actually happens.”
A top priority for Tshiela in the next 45 days will be to advocate mandated cultural sensitivity training for new and current law enforcement officers.
“The problems that we have I think stem from the fact that law enforcement doesn’t have the proper training when it comes to black people and people of color,” she said.
Tshiela is also calling for the use of body cameras on police statewide, greater transparency in police misconduct, a ban on the use of rubber bullets, and action to prevent racial profiling in traffic stops and arrests.
“Everyone has to be willing to listen, everyone has to be ready to take into account the other person’s side,” Tshiela said.
She believes the key to fostering cooperative and productive work among members of different experiential backgrounds is for the commission to be above politics.
“This is a human rights issue, and it should not be looked at as partisan,” she said. “That’s important for everyone on the commission, and in the public, to keep reminding themselves of. Things like this can get lost in politics and this is not a political thing at all.”
Controversy in New Hampshire around racial discrimination and the police in the last few weeks has gravitated towards two issues: whether the names of officers with founded misconduct on the so-called “Laurie List” should be made public, and accusations against State Police of excessive force and racial profiling, which sharpened after a video of a black man from Albany being pulled from his car by state police went viral in late May.
Sununu has said he supports making disciplined officers’ names public once they have received due process and has expressed support for legislative reform of police practices surrounding excessive force.
Last Tuesday, the same day that Sununu’s executive order established the commission, the state Senate passed legislation that bans the use of chokeholds by officers outside of life-threatening situations and requires officers to report misconduct by their peers, a clear allusion to the death of George Floyd.
But the omnibus bill went further, also banning the use of private prisons in the Granite State and obligating psychological screening for law enforcement recruits.
She hopes that the commission’s recommendations have a sizeable and ongoing influence on the direction of law enforcement reform in the state.
“It’s really important that we’re not just there so that they can say we were there and that they gave us an opportunity to speak,” Tshiela said.
National popular support for Black Lives Matter has risen sharply in the weeks since George Floyd’s death, and civil unrest and activism, including by Black Lives Matter Manchester, are ongoing.
Tshiela’s appointment to the commission may be a sign that the message of young activists is finding greater resonance not just with the public but with higher office in the state.
Tshiela is optimistic that is the case. “I think a lot of people are going to remember the work that we have done and so many people have done,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that change can come this time.”
Catherine McLaughlin is an InDepthNH.org intern, a rising senior at Middlebury College who is interested in politics and local news.