The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has sparked a national discussion on race, policing and the use of force. Cities around the country are reviewing their use-of-force policies, and some have announced changes, such as banning chokeholds and other neck restraints.
Over the past few weeks, The Sentinel has asked 30 law-enforcement agencies that work in southwestern New Hampshire and southeastern Vermont to disclose their policies on the use of force by officers. The policies that have been provided are posted online at SentinelSource.com, as are the responses of the departments that withheld or redacted them.
Police officers sometimes have to use force to make arrests, defend themselves or protect others. That can range from grabbing someone’s wrist to a fatal shooting, depending on the circumstances.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an officer’s use of force must be “objectively reasonable” in light of the situation, and New Hampshire state law lays out some basic parameters for when force is justified. Departmental use-of-force policies build on those broad foundations, articulating more specific guidelines.
These policies can show whether a department has expressly banned or limited potentially risky tactics like neck restraints and shooting at moving vehicles. They may also indicate whether departments require officers to de-escalate situations when possible and whether they explicitly establish a duty to intervene when officers see colleagues using excessive force.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank, has recommended such steps as best practices, and they are among the immediate demands of groups advocating for police reform after Floyd’s death. (A Minneapolis officer was recorded kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ultimately killing him.)
Many of the local policies reviewed by The Sentinel include one or more of those provisions. Not all address neck restraints specifically, though local police officials say the technique is not used here.
The police chiefs in Chesterfield and Keene said that in responding to The Sentinel’s requests, they noticed their policies technically still allowed “chokeholds,” even though they’re not taught — what Keene Police Chief Steven Russo called “a hold-over from some previous time that we apparently kept missing in policy updates.” Both said they are updating the policies to change that.
As of Tuesday night, 19 police departments had provided their use-of-force policies to The Sentinel, a couple of them redacted to varying degrees. Six — Dublin, Fitzwilliam, Greenfield, Hancock, Rindge and Stoddard — denied The Sentinel’s requests entirely, and several requests remained pending.
The officials who denied The Sentinel’s requests said the policies reveal law-enforcement techniques and procedures, and their release could allow suspects to “adjust their behaviors.” Some also said that disclosing such information could create a safety risk for officers or members of the public.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group convened by then-President Barack Obama, recommended in 2015 that use-of-force policies be “clear, concise, and openly available for public inspection.”
The police departments in many of the country’s largest cities post their full use-of-force policies online. Those and related policies typically describe specific techniques and weapons, and some, including Chicago, Phoenix and Philadelphia, detail the makes and calibers of the firearms their officers carry.
“Especially now, police departments should be eager to get these policies in the hands of the public, so citizens will know their police officers are acting reasonably,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a transparency advocacy group.
The Sentinel is making every use-of-force policy it has received available online at SentinelSource.com. The page also includes explanations from the police departments that declined to release their policies and will be updated as more respond.
The Keene Police Department released its full use-of-force policy to the public Tuesday, after months of declining to do so.
Previously, the city had released only a heavily redacted version of the policy. That version, provided to The Sentinel in response to a public-records request last fall, omitted nearly all references to specific physical techniques and weapons that officers were authorized to use.
In a statement Tuesday, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon and Police Chief Steven Russo said they continue to believe the redactions were justified.
“However, the City has concluded that public trust in the operation of the Keene Police Department, and trust by the public in their interactions with Keene police officers, is paramount,” the statement said. “Successful and peaceful interactions between law enforcement officers and the community that they serve is based first and foremost on mutual trust, and cannot be based on fear and suspicion.”
The statement came a day after a virtual forum on racial injustice and public safety convened by Mayor George S. Hansel, at which two attendees called on the city to release the full policy.
Also on Monday, The Sentinel informed city officials it was preparing to publish a story about which local police departments had released their policies and asked whether the city would reconsider its stance on redactions.
Many local police departments have released their full use-of-force policies to The Sentinel, though others have made redactions or withheld the policies entirely.
The city’s statement Tuesday noted that the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody last month “has prompted a necessary re-evaluation of the use of force by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. And the City of Keene Police Department is no exception.”
Russo said earlier this month that in reviewing the policy after an inquiry from The Sentinel, he noticed it technically still allowed “chokeholds,” even though officers have not been trained to use them for as long as he can remember. He said he was updating the policy. The version released Tuesday does not appear to mention the term.
The Sentinel originally asked for the city’s use-of-force policy last November. The redacted version was provided in December.
Dragon and City Attorney Thomas Mullins justified the redactions on the basis of exemptions to New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law that relate to law-enforcement techniques and procedures and disclosures that put someone’s life or safety at risk.
In a March email, Dragon said “disclosing such techniques and procedures could assist individuals in taking steps to counter the necessary use of force in an effort to escape detention, and which may result in an unnecessary escalation of the force required for the officer to safely control the situation, thereby endangering the safety of all of the participants.”
The city had resisted releasing its policy as recently as earlier this month. “As to our entire policy, I ask you to think of it as releasing a team’s game plan to the opposition, who would do that?” Russo said in a June 2 email to The Sentinel, after a renewed request for the full policy. “We have nothing to hide, we are as transparent as officer and public safety allows.”
Luca Paris didn’t take the reopening of his Central Square dining room lightly.
He had a seating plan using every second table to ensure diners at Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe in Keene stayed six feet apart during their meals. He made cards for each table explaining when masks are required. He swapped out tables for four in one part of the restaurant with tables for two so that he could accommodate more patrons.
All in all, Paris said the first day back to indoor service Monday was busy but good, with a bustling patio and indoor dining room while the restaurant was open from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. He said guests were cooperative with safety guidelines the state requires for restaurants to resume indoor operations, and his team is doing their best to ensure a safe and delicious experience for all.
“Yesterday was a crazy day,” he said Tuesday. “In the best way.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurant owners would be permitted to reopen their dining rooms effective Monday after being forced to close back in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants had been limited to pick-up or delivery service since March 16 and were allowed to open for patio service on May 18.
There are, however, some additional restrictions restaurants must follow. They include requiring staff to wear masks at all times (and asking that customers also wear them whenever they’re not seated at their table) as well as keeping tables spread out and promoting good hand hygiene.
Paris said most people were pleased to be able to sit down in a restaurant again and enjoy a meal. But at least a couple of people insisted on eating outside due to concerns about being in a public setting, he noted.
Like Paris, the owners of other local restaurants saw a lot of business on Monday. Main Street’s Local Burger has also reopened its dining room, and while one employee said there has been a preference for patio seating, she thinks it has more to do with the nice weather than concerns about being around people again.
Valaree Hood, a server, said on Tuesday that the restaurant has done a good job of managing its space to minimize the number of chairs they had to remove while also respecting the six-foot rule for tables. She said it’s been busy, and a lot of people have been anxious for a chance to get outside and do something different.
“I think people have just been home for too long,” she said. “They want to come back out, enjoy the nice weather and get some good food.”
Fritz, which moved from its Main Street location to Central Square just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning in earnest, has opened about a third of its dining room, according to owner Michael Rigoli. He said he’s been busy — not just since on-site service has resumed but even during the period when the restaurant was restricted to take-out.
But getting back to business as usual has been a bit of a struggle, he said. One of the biggest hurdles is he didn’t expect indoor service to be allowed again until July, so he doesn’t have the employees needed to return to full-scale operations.
“I don’t have any staff right now,” he said. “... We’re six people short.”
He also said he’s gotten mixed reactions from his customers about dining indoors, saying that while most of them are appreciative for a chance to be out and about again, a smaller number of people have been “terrorized” by the pandemic and are extremely worried about safety.
He also expressed frustration with Sununu, citing what he described as ever-changing guidelines for how restaurants could operate. He said this has made it difficult to keep up. He even wrote the governor a letter, though Rigoli said he never received a response.
Benjamin Vihstadt, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday morning that the governor had received the letter.
Throughout the reopening process, Paris said it has been his goal to show that restaurants could restart in a way that is safe. He said he has been going by the book when it comes to enforcing the state’s requirements and is unwilling to take any chances.
“We are responsible for making sure that we do this right, because we can be a big part of the solution of making sure people maintain social distancing and maintain the mask wearing to limit the spread [of COVID-19],” Paris said. “We have a responsibility to do that. We don’t want to see a spike here, or concerns about maybe we shouldn’t have opened.”
The state’s official stay-at-home order expired Monday at midnight.
Nearly every corner of the New Hampshire economy, from bowling alleys to libraries to museums, has been given the greenlight to reopen.
But normal remains a long way off, as new unemployment numbers show that 100,000 residents remain unemployed following a months-long mandated shutdown.
The unemployment rate dropped to 14.5 percent in May, according to N.H. Employment Security. While that would have been an unfathomable figure just a few months ago, when the rate stood at 2.4 percent, it is down from its peak in April, when the rate hit 17.1 percent.
More than 7,000 food service employees returned to the payrolls last month. There were also job gains in the retail and construction sectors, as businesses began to reopen amidst a wave of new guidelines and continued community spread of the coronavirus.
“The state’s 14.5 percent May unemployment rate depicts continuing pain,” said Russ Thibeault, an economist with the Laconia-based firm Applied Economic Research. “It is neither as good as some hoped, nor as bad as some feared. I expect we will see gradual improvement in the coming months as more businesses return to near-normal operations, unless the virus forces a re-evaluation of the state’s opening policies.”
Those opening guidelines took a step forward at midnight, when the “stay-at-home” order enacted by Gov. Chris Sununu in late March was allowed to expire. In its place, Sununu implemented a set of “safer-at- home” guidelines. As the name suggests, public health officials are encouraging residents to continue limiting their trips outside of the home, and socially distance and wear masks when venturing out.
Residents over 65, and those with underlying health conditions, are also still advised to stay home under the new order.
But gradually, Main Streets are starting to return to normal. Over the weekend, Hampton Beach saw large crowds, and outdoor patios at many restaurants are filling up on warm evenings.
It isn’t hard, however, to find businesses that remain mired in a stalled economy.
Contract Support Group, a small manufacturer in Belmont, reopened in May following a one-month shut-down, but it is only operating two days a week as orders trickle in.
“Until demand increases or we get some new business coming in, that’s an operating level that’s comfortable for us right now,” said CEO Sharon Eng, who NHPR has been checking in with occasionally during the pandemic.
Eng said her business has been able to pay its bills with the assistance of federal PPP loans, and has also applied for state grants. Her 16 employees continue to receive enhanced unemployment benefits through the state and federal government, though that program expires at the end of July.
It isn’t clear if demand for her products will return to normal by then, or if she will be back to full capacity.
“It’s funny, I used to know six weeks ahead of time very clearly. Now it seems like long-term planning,” she said. “So, I think right now, I take things, basically, day by day.”