By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
Proposed legislation that would require police disciplinary hearings at the Police Standards and Training Council be conducted in public, and a last-minute amendment that would make public the unredacted Laurie List of dishonest police were supported by all who testified at Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 471 was supported by members of law enforcement, incoming Attorney General John Formella, Safety Commissioner Bob Quinn and Ken Norton, director of NAMI-NH, to name a few.
Ahni Malachi, executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, said she was speaking in support of the bill and amendment as a member of the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency commission that met last summer and formulated 48 recommendations for police reform that were unanimously adopted and approved by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Many of the members of law enforcement and others who testified Thursday also served on the LEACT commission that Sununu established to look at police reform in New Hampshire in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis at the hands of police.
Rep. Terry Roy, R-Deerfield, who sponsored the original bill, said: “This is a bill that would make police disciplinary hearings at the state level public.” This wouldn’t apply to disciplinary proceedings at the police department level, which are confidential, he said.
The public has a right to know how the process works for police officers, he said. “Sunlight is always the best disinfectant,” Roy said, adding people need to have confidence in the people who are enforcing the law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was told that other professions such as doctors, lawyers and plumbers are all subject to public disciplinary hearings.
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of ACLU-NH, supported the original bill and the amendment.
“We firmly support this bill,” Bissonnette said. It is critical these hearings be held in public so people can see how the process works, he said.
Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, and Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, both asked about the provision in the amendment that makes it clear that the Attorney General’s Office would “voluntarily” maintain the Laurie List and could stop maintaining it in the future.
John Formella, who takes over as attorney general next week after Gordon MacDonald was confirmed chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said at the present time that office voluntarily maintains the list, that there is no statutory requirement that the attorney general keeps the list. During negotiations with stakeholders, members of law enforcement were adamant that the language include the voluntary language, he said.
“For the law enforcement stakeholders that came to the table to negotiate this language, there was the desire to maintain that status quo,” Formella said. The thought was if the state embarks on a new system “we want to maintain flexibility in case it doesn’t work out the way folks are anticipating. I will say that it is absolutely my intention to maintain the EES (Laurie List),” Formella said.
The law enforcement community didn’t want to have it locked in statute that the attorney general must maintain it, he said.
Kahn asked Roy, the sponsor of the bill, if it mattered to him whether the proposed legislation said the attorney general “may” or “shall” maintain the list and he said he would be happy to work on the wording. “I do support the concept of the amendment,” Roy said.
Bissonnette said the amendment is also supported by the New Hampshire Union Leader and the news outlets he represents in the public records lawsuit against the attorney general seeking the release of the unredacted Laurie List that has been in the courts since 2018.
The news outlets that support the amendment include the Keene Sentinel, the Nashua Telegraph, Seacoast Newspapers and the Concord Monitor, Bissonnette said.
“All of this was done in the hope to resolve the public disclosure on the EES (Laurie List) once and for all,” Bissonnette said. “I believe this amendment as well is consistent with the LEACT commission recommendations concerning the EES.”
Bissonnette withdrew last fall from representing the lead petitioner in the lawsuit, the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism that is now represented by attorney Andru Volinsky.
The amendment is the result of negotiations between Solicitor General Dan Will and ACLU-NH, the Union Leader and the four news outlets that Bissonnette still represents in the public records lawsuit. Last Friday, they filed a partially assented to motion to delay further proceedings in the lawsuit until July 1 to wait and see if the legislature passes HB 471 arguing if it does pass, the lawsuit will be unnecessary because the list would become public.
See motion to stay and House Bill 471 amendment here. http://indepthnh.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Partially-Joint-Motion-to-Stay-1.pdf
Volinsky filed an objection Wednesday saying this is at least the second time they have sought a delay. Under the amendment, any officer on the list could tie up the release of his or her listing by filing litigation that presents a due process claim and prevent release of the listing until that litigation is completed, which could take years, Volinsky said.
“Finally, as if all of the tilting towards the listed officer were not enough, the whole EES (Laurie List) is made completely discretionary,” Volinsky wrote.