City officials say they’re moving ahead with plans to outfit Keene’s police force with body-worn and vehicle cameras, after state lawmakers recently created a fund to help local agencies purchase that technology.
At least some funding for the cameras, which are expected to cost about $460,000 including start-up expenses and which Keene police trialed last year, will come from state or federal aid programs, according to Chief Steven Russo. While those details haven’t been settled, Russo said Thursday that he’d like to purchase the cameras by next spring.
“We will do any combination we can to make it the least cost to the taxpayers,” he said.
Local police agencies that are interested in buying body cameras got a boost Wednesday, when Gov. Chris Sununu signed a trio of bills meant to increase police accountability — one of which creates a grant program to help communities afford the cameras for officers and police vehicles by matching their investment in them. But the fund thus far contains just $1.
That fund addresses a recommendation of the state’s Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) commission, which Sununu created last year after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, sparking national calls for reform. Advocates say that by recording police-civilian interactions, body cameras help curb misconduct and hold bad actors accountable — though research is largely unclear on whether they reduce use of force by law enforcement.
Russo, who has previously voiced support for using the cameras, said Thursday he thinks they would help resolve any differing accounts of an incident involving Keene police.
“It does make people feel comfortable [around] transparency so we can actually see what happened,” he said. “… We actually have proof right there.”
A small but growing number of New Hampshire communities, including Manchester and Nashua, have either equipped their police with body cameras or have approved funding for the devices.
Since the grant program that Sununu signed into law Wednesday doesn’t yet have funding, though, Keene is exploring other ways to purchase cameras.
The police department has asked for a federal stipend worth $415,000 to buy 50 body cameras and 16 dashboard cameras, according to City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who said officials can also tap funds they set aside this year specifically for police equipment. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has included the federal request in a draft spending bill for the next fiscal year, Dragon said.
Russo said his preference is for the federal stipend, which would cover much of the cameras’ cost, though he said Keene may get a combination of federal and state resources. (City officials have also applied for a separate $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help buy the devices, he said.)
The federal options come with fewer question marks, too, Russo noted, saying he has “no idea” how the state dollars will be disbursed to local agencies.
Officials from the N.H. Attorney General’s Office and the N.H. Department of Safety, which will administer the new state fund, must develop an application process for those grants, according to spokespersons from those agencies. They will also oversee $1 million that Granite State lawmakers included in the newest budget to help local police agencies pay for body cameras.
“We don’t know what the rules are going to be and how they’re going to do it,” Russo said. “… I just have no idea what departments are going to get that first.”
The initial state funding is likely to cover only the administrative costs of setting up a grant program for local agencies, according to state Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, who said he thinks it will take between $30 and $50 million to equip their officers with body cameras. (By contrast, the N.H. Executive Council recently approved a $3.4 million contract to outfit all state troopers with cameras.)
Kahn applauded the new reforms, which also mandate that New Hampshire release to the public its secretive Exculpatory Evidence Schedule — known informally as the “Laurie List” — which documents officers with credibility issues due to past complaints and misconduct. He also pledged to push for more body-camera funding and said he’d like to mandate implicit bias training for judges, a LEACT recommendation that was stripped from the bills Sununu signed.
“I think there’s more work to be done,” Kahn said of the commission’s proposals. “Those conversations will continue.”
Keene officials faced pressure to equip local police with body cameras last year, when more than 400 people signed a petition after Floyd’s murder asking the city to buy that technology in order to hold its officers accountable. (To date, 562 people have signed the online petition.)
Those calls prompted Keene police — with city councilors’ backing — to outfit six officers with cameras and install in-car systems in three cruisers as part of a 30-day trial meant to analyze the benefits and costs of using the devices. Officials opted in February to delay any further action on body cameras while state lawmakers were still considering whether to offer funds for them, however.
Terry Clark, a former city councilor who is one of Cheshire County’s three commissioners, said he was glad to hear that Keene police are proceeding with plans to buy the cameras.
In addition to reducing police misconduct, Clark said the devices can also help restore trust in law enforcement, which he said has been “painted with a broad brush because of the actions of some very bad cops.”
“I think it’s a good idea because it helps give police credibility, and it protects both citizens and the police from wild accusations,” he said. “It just brings out the truth.”
Paying for body cameras includes their initial purchase as well as their upkeep and storage in future years, Clark said, adding that it’s unclear how long state or federal resources will be available to help cover those costs. Still, he said, it’s worth equipping officers with the devices because they bring needed accountability.
“I’m cost-conscious, as well, but I’m also social-conscious,” he said. “I think there are certain things that you need to pay for.”
After Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera requested $50,000 last year to equip his deputies with body cameras, the county delegation — 24 local N.H. House representatives — included that funding in the current county budget, on the condition that it’s fully reimbursed by the state.
Rivera asked the delegation’s Executive Committee in July to consider amending its budget to provide those funds if they’re only partially reimbursed, he told The Sentinel. That request — for the county to match state funds, as required by the new grant program — was declined by the committee, but Rivera said he plans to reintroduce it in next year’s budget.
Research has found that using body cameras tends to reduce complaints of police misconduct, but Russo said he isn’t sure that would happen in Keene because the city already has a relatively low number of complaints. In 2020, Keene police made 1,025 arrests, 60 of which involved use of force, and received four complaints, according to data published by the department.
In addition to securing the resources for body cameras, Keene has several other hurdles to overcome before implementing them, according to Russo. Those include hiring an assistant city attorney — a position for which officials have already budgeted — who can help review body-cam footage and process requests for those records, in addition to actually installing the devices on police uniforms and cruisers, he said.
“We don’t want to rush into this,” he said. “… The program’s too important not to do correctly.”
This time next year, a group of seven students will start at Keene State College, the first recipients of a new scholarship designed to help students from families of low income pursue degrees in chemistry and biology.
Another seven freshmen will join them the following year on scholarships funded by a nearly $650,000 competitive grant from the National Science Foundation. The money will also provide for paid research positions for these 14 students over the next five years, and a robust campus-wide support system to help them complete their course of study, and hopefully find careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
“One of the cool things about the grant is it really requires you to sort of show collaboration with all offices on campus,” said Brian Anderson, chair of the chemistry department, who is spearheading the new program. “Because they want student support, you need admissions, you need financial aid, academic advising, tutoring services.”
Loren Launen, a biology professor who also worked on Keene State’s application for the NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Program (S-STEM), said the new scholarships will make biology and chemistry degrees more accessible to students who might not otherwise have been able to study these in-demand fields.
“It will also bring them the opportunity to get connected to undergraduate research in the natural sciences quickly and in a sustainable manner,” she said in an email. “Students who have to work while they are in school often work in areas unrelated to their education, but our funding will allow us to compensate students financially for research — they will BE scientists, not just students of science, during the course of their degrees.”
Keene State is still in the early stages of recruiting students for the S-STEM scholarships, Anderson said, and plans to launch a webpage for the program soon and distribute informational pamphlets to high-school counselors and science teachers.
“So we’re really taking this fall to recruit, hopefully get people to come visit campus, see the things we do and what we can offer,” he said.
Prospective Keene State students, who should contact the college to determine if they are eligible for the new scholarships, won’t have to submit any additional paperwork to the school outside of the normal admissions process, Anderson said.
“We want to keep this as simple for students as possible,” he said. “... So, you need to apply, show an interest in chemistry or biology, and then also complete your financial aid, because that’s what deems what scholarship level you’re eligible for.”
The S-STEM scholarships will average $7,000 to 8,000 a year, with a maximum of $10,000 annually for a student’s four years at Keene State. These scholarships will be in addition to any other financial aid they receive, Anderson said. For the current school year, the average tuition and fees for a New Hampshire resident at Keene State is $27,834, and $38,190 for students from out of state.
Anderson added that many in-state students who might be interested in the S-STEM program at Keene State would also be eligible, based on family income, for federal Pell Grants, qualifying them for free tuition through the Granite Guarantee. This program is open to all New Hampshire residents enrolling in one of the schools of the state’s public university system, and aims to bridge the gap between federal assistance through the Pell Grant and in-state tuition costs.
“And so New Hampshire students will be close to a free ride at Keene State with us [through the S-STEM scholarship],” he said.
Keene State first applied for an S-STEM grant in 2019, but the National Science Foundation did not approve the request, Anderson said. According to the NSF, there are 656 active S-STEM programs nationwide, including six in New Hampshire (three at UNH in Durham and one each at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge and Colby-Sawyer College in New London).
After receiving the initial rejection, Anderson said a team of Keene State faculty members spent about nine months reworking the application, including adding biology to the initial proposal, which had only included chemistry.
“We can encompass more students, and we work really well with biology,” he said. “And most students these days are really on the interface of biology and chemistry interest, anyway, and [there are] a lot of careers in the area. So that worked really nicely for us.”
Keene State submitted its application in April 2020, and learned this March that its application for $648,397 had been approved. Roughly 60 percent of these funds, or $390,000, is tied to scholarships, while the remainder will go toward student support like tutoring and research positions. And while the scholarships will go to a group of seven students each of the next two years, Anderson said the additional supports funded by the grant will be available to all biology and chemistry majors at Keene State.
“So they’d still benefit from the tutoring, they’d benefit from paid first-year research experiences,” he said. “So anybody who’s coming to chemistry or biology can benefit from everything, and then there’s this select seven that get the scholarship.”
And as the scholarship program benefits Keene State science students, faculty members will also be using it to research the best ways to help first-generation college students and those of low income finish science degrees and pursue careers in those fields.
“We are very intentionally providing students with a research experience in their first year of college and second year of college, and working very closely with faculty, really from the second they step on campus,” Anderson said. “And what we sort of hypothesize is that by doing that, we’re going to help them with their self-identity as a scientist, their persistence in the major.”
This sort of research has been conducted at larger institutions, Anderson said, but rarely, if ever, at a small, public liberal arts school like Keene State. Faculty members working on the project will report annually to the National Science Foundation, he said, and present their findings internally at Keene State, and at conferences regionally and nationally.
And while the research portion of the project has yet to begin, Anderson said he has a strong inclination what the study will find.
“I mean, we see it all the time but we haven’t really studied it: You get the student in the research lab, and that’s when the lightbulb starts going off,” he said, adding that research labs offer more opportunities than classrooms for students and faculty to collaborate. “... We’re all working together on it, and the knowledge it takes to solve the problem could come from anywhere.”
Britany Barron, the Jaffrey woman accused of hiding Keene resident Jonathan Amerault’s body after, authorities say, her husband killed him last year, plans to plead guilty to charges stemming from Amerault’s death, according to a new court filing.
Documents filed Friday in Coos County Superior Court, where Barron faces three counts of falsifying physical evidence, a felony, indicate that she intends to plead guilty to all three counts as part of a plea deal with state prosecutors.
Under the terms of that deal, which were filed with the court, Barron, 32, would be sentenced to 1½ years in prison and have the 11 months she’s been in jail count toward that term. She has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors on their case against her husband, Armando Barron, including by possibly testifying against him.
Britany Barron, who also faces two counts of abusing a corpse, a misdemeanor, would have those charges dropped under the agreement with prosecutors.
A plea hearing in her case is scheduled for Monday in Grafton County Superior Court in North Haverhill. Her Keene-based attorney, Richard Guerriero, declined Friday to comment on the plea deal until after it’s presented in court.
Barron has been held at the Grafton County jail since late last September, when she and her husband, Armando Barron, 31, were arrested in connection with Amerault’s death earlier that month.
Police have said Armando Barron shot and killed Amerault, 25, overnight between Sept. 19 and 20 after luring him to Annett Wayside Park in Rindge when he discovered that Britany Barron and Amerault were romantically involved. In an affidavit, N.H. State Police Sgt. Stephen Sloper wrote that Britany Barron said her husband tried to make her kill Amerault but that she refused.
A Coos County Superior Court judge denied Britany Barron’s request for bail earlier this year, saying he felt prosecutors had shown that if released, she would be a threat to the community.
In arguing for Britany Barron to remain incarcerated, Assistant Attorney General Scott Chase said that while she and her husband were in separate vehicles after Amerault was shot, she had both a cellphone and a loaded gun, but didn’t take action to stop her husband’s efforts to evade police or report him to authorities herself.
“Every time she was presented with an opportunity, she made an unlawful choice to further Jonathan’s murder, to conceal and destroy evidence and to ensure that a murderer walked free,” Chase said during a hearing.
Britany Barron told police that after her husband killed Amerault, the couple took his body north, driving Amerault’s car and their own vehicle, according to the affidavit. N.H. Fish and Game officers discovered his body two days later in an unincorporated area of Coos County.
Sloper wrote in his affidavit that Britany Barron said she had decapitated Amerault’s body and attempted to hide his remains, on her husband’s orders.
She also told police that Armando Barron severely beat her after discovering that she’d been romantically involved with Amerault, according to the affidavit. Britany Barron’s mugshot shows her with a pair of black eyes, including one with a broken blood vessel, and other photos from the investigation show significant bruising on other parts of her body.
Armando Barron, who faces a slew of charges in Cheshire County Superior Court including capital murder, has denied his wife’s allegations. He is being held at the Cheshire County jail in Keene.
Guerriero, Britany Barron’s attorney, said his client had a strong duress defense, and that victims of domestic violence often act in ways that are different from how they’d normally behave. He asked the judge to consider her actions in the context of what Armando Barron, who also faces multiple counts of assault, is accused of doing to her before Amerault’s murder — pointing to guidance from the N.H. Attorney General’s Office on cases involving domestic violence.
“To the extent that the state faults Ms. Barron for her conduct and for any of her statements, beyond the duress she was under, beyond the threat to her life and everything else, her behavior pretty much exactly matches what the AG describes ... as the stereotypical behavior of a victim of domestic violence,” Guerriero said at the time.