By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Members of the commission charged with developing recommendations on handling police misconduct complaints praised the hard work that the director of Police Standards and Training had put into a draft legislative proposal, but some objected to the dominance by law enforcement personnel in deciding on the outcomes.
During the commission’s Oct. 14 meeting, Attorney Julian Jefferson of the Public Defender’s Office reminded the panel that they were there to deal with appearances and the need to assure the public that complaints against police officers would be impartially handled.
The commission came about to deal with the remaining recommendations from Gov. Chris Sununu’s Law Enforcement Commission on Accountability, Community, and Transparency (LEACT), in an effort to restore public confidence in the integrity of police departments.
Director John Scippa’s 16-page draft reworking the statute covering the Police Standards and Training Council establishes a new administratively attached Law Enforcement Conduct Review Committee that would consider “all properly filed complaints alleging prohibited conduct … and, if determined necessary, recommend that a public hearing be held by the Council on the matter and provide a recommendation of sanction upon a finding by the Council.”
The complaint review committee would comprise four law enforcement members and three civilian members for relative parity. However, under Scippa’s proposal, the Police Standards and Training Council would be expanded by adding a police chief serving a college or university community and the president of the New Hampshire Police Association or designee. Members of the public serving on the committee would be increased from two to three.
“Having 10 law enforcement officers and three public members, if we’re going to use the council to implement this recommendation, I don’t think we’re anywhere near what we were saying, that this an independent, neutral party that was slightly weighted to law enforcement would decide,” Jefferson said. “You’d have to reshape the PSTC at the council level because they are the biggest participant in the process.”
Eddie Edwards, assistance commissioner of the Department of Safety, suggested that, if the PSTC were to add two members of law enforcement, it also should add two members of the public, not just one.
ACLU-NH representative Joseph Lascaze pointed out that, as proposed, law enforcement personnel would make up 82 percent of the council. He suggested having a member of the ACLU serve on the council to offset that advantage.
Edwards opposed having any member of an advocacy group serve on the council and asked why one group would be chosen over another when there are several such advocacy groups in the state.
Attorney General John Formella suggested that another slot could be added to the council, and an appointment made without naming a particular group.
Londonderry Police Lt. Mark Morrison, who serves as president of the N.H. Police Association, supported having a rank-and-file member of the police community on the panel, saying such a member could provide the perspective of an officer who is not in a leadership role, and he could inform his peers of what is happening at Police Standards and Training.
Jefferson and Lascaze classified police associations as advocacy groups.
Scippa reiterated his concern about the exercise they were undertaking. “Do we have a problem that’s not being addressed?” he asked, saying he takes offense at the suggestion his agency is not holding officers accountable. He acknowledged that the public has little insight into the decertification process because, in the past, it has not been open to the public. “The optics are not good,” he admitted.
He said the agency does hold officers accountable for their actions when it is aware of a complaint, but people need to know how to file complaints. “It’s not clearly set forth,” he said of the process. “There are some gaps, but this proposal fills in those gaps.”
Jefferson complained that the use of the term “valid complaint” was too restrictive, requiring those filing complaints to do so in a sworn statement in writing and to identify themselves. He suggested it should be a “credible complaint” without the conditions, citing as an example someone calling in with specific information about who the officer was, what he did, and when. “It should be the substance of the complaint that matters,” he said.
Some of the other provisions of the draft proposal are a requirement that the executive officer of a law enforcement agency must file a report within 15 days about any complaint of prohibited conduct. If the local agency resolves the matter within the 15 days, the notice must include information on how the investigation into the complaint was handled, and any suspension, demotion, or termination that resulted, even if the officer resigned.
The report must include any relevant documents, but they would not be subject to the state’s right-to-know provisions unless they met other criteria outlined in the law. The reason is “to protect the reputation of law enforcement officers from public disclosure of unwarranted complaints against them.”
After receiving the report, the committee would review it to make sure there had been a valid investigation; otherwise, the committee could call for such an investigation. The council would be notified of all complaints and actions taken.
In order “to fulfill the public’s right to know of any action taken against a law enforcement officer when that action is based on a sustained finding of misconduct,” the Police Standards and Training website would initially contain the nature of the complaint but not the identity of the officer or employing agency. Once there is a sustained finding of misconduct, the list would be updated with the name and address of the officer; formal charges; findings, conclusions, and orders of the council; the hearing transcript and exhibits; any stipulations filed with the council; and any final disposition of the matter by the N.H. Supreme Court.
Any reports of non-disciplinary or regulatory matters submitted to the council by law enforcement agencies would be exempted from RSA 91-A release.
The draft also demands non-disclosure agreements by council and committee members and employees of Police Standards and Training regarding the matters that are not subject to public release. Officers charged with prohibited conduct would be allowed access to their files.
The commission was to meet on Monday to resume its review of the draft documents, but members agreed instead to take the time to put together any suggested changes and circulate them among the group. Formella and Senior Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead intend to pull together all of the suggestions for discussion next Thursday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m.