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Violent crime was up in US last year, but not in Keene
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Certain types of violent crime spiked in U.S. cities last year. But that trend did not extend to Keene, where fewer violent crimes were reported in 2020 than in 2019.

And homicides fell in New Hampshire, even as they rose nationwide.

The Keene Police Department recorded 30 reports of violent crime in 2020, compared to more than 40 in 2019, continuing a downward trend over the past several years, according to data the Keene Police Department collects for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

The FBI defines “violent crime” as murder/nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery and rape.

“Fortunately, we do not have high numbers of serious crime” generally, Keene Police Chief Steven Russo said in an email. With such low numbers, one shouldn’t read too much into fluctuations from one year to the next, he said, and “crimes tend to flow in the same range from year to year.”

“We are always happy when any crime decreases, especially violent and or crimes against a person,” he added.

Several analyses have found that homicides rose sharply around the country last year.

Preliminary FBI data suggest murders went up by 25 percent nationwide in 2020, and other analyses have similarly found evidence of a large increase. Murders increased in all parts of the country and in cities of all sizes — including those, like Keene, with 10,000 to 24,999 people — according to that initial data.

For other violent crimes, the picture is more nuanced.

Aggravated assaults also seem to have gone up nationwide in 2020, though not as much as murders — about 10 percent in the FBI’s preliminary analysis. Meanwhile, reports of robbery and rape were down. Overall, the FBI estimated that violent crime rose by 3 percent nationally in 2020.

Property crime was down nationwide, according to the FBI and a separate analysis by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

Homicides and rapes make up a relatively small percentage of violent crime, according to Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City and former analyst for the NYPD. “Robberies and assaults are the overwhelming crime[s] that comprise what we call violent crime,” he said.

The murder rate in the U.S. has declined substantially since the mid-1990s, and even with the estimated increase, the level of deadly violence in 2020 was still well below what it was back then. Analysts have pointed to the stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, eroding trust in law enforcement, reduced police activity and a surge of gun sales as possible factors behind the 2020 increase, but have not reached definitive answers.

According to the FBI’s preliminary analysis, overall violent crime fell in one region of the country last year — the Northeast, which saw an estimated 3 percent drop from 2019.

Homicides in New Hampshire declined by about half. The N.H. Attorney General’s Office said it handled 16 in 2020 — down from more than 30 the year before, and lower than all but two years since at least 2005, according to data gathered by N.H. Public Radio.

Keene did not have any homicides in either year, but reports of aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes were all lower in 2020 than 2019.

Those topline stats don’t fully capture how the pandemic and other factors affected public safety last year. For instance, Gilford Police Chief Anthony J. Bean Burpee, president of the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, said many of his members reported upticks in domestic violence when the pandemic started and lockdowns were imposed.

Russo, the Keene police chief, said the closure of bars, restaurants and other businesses likely influenced how often crimes like theft and assault occurred. He also noted that a description like “robbery” can cover a range of incidents.

It “could be what most think of as a robbery or it could be someone committing shoplifting and pushes an employee and runs, which I would say is more often the case with Keene,” he said.

Want to know more about levels of crime in the Monadnock Region? Check out our new crime-stats page at sentinelsource.com/news/publicsafety.

Alison Adams sets up a spotlight outside her barn on Baker Street in Keene Wednesday, in case the solar lights do not turn on due to cloud cover. Out of respect, she said, she “will not hang a flag without a light.” 

Court: Senate Bill 3 placed unneeded burdens on voters

The N.H. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that struck down a 2017 voter registration law in its entirety was based on the finding that it burdened the constitutional right to vote.

Voting 4-0, the court overturned Senate Bill 3, a Republican-backed law that would have required voters to prove their place of domicile by producing a series of documents to election officials — or face steep fines and misdemeanor charges for noncompliance.

“We conclude that SB 3 imposes unreasonable burdens on the right to vote,” the court wrote.

The law was touted by Gov. Chris Sununu as an election security measure that would ensure towns would know whether voters were voting in the correct town — and reduce the potential for voter fraud.

Before SB 3, New Hampshire voters did not need to prove their domicile in order to register to vote but could instead fill out an affidavit confirming that they lived where they said they did.

SB 3 required voters to bring in documents that showed they were a student, a tenant, a homeowner, or had a driver’s license with an accurate address in order to register up to 30 days before the election. Those voters registering within 30 days — or registering on the same day as voting — would have to sign a new form promising to send the documents by mail or bring them within a month after the election was held.

Under the law, a voter who failed to send in those documents within 10 to 30 days of the election could face a fine of up to $5,000 and a misdemeanor charge.

Democrats blasted the law as confusing and burdensome, and the N.H. Democratic Party teamed up with the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and six plaintiffs, who said the new documentation requirements could disrupt their ability to vote in the state.

At issue in the case was how much of a barrier the new law would present to voters — and whether those hurdles made it unconstitutional.

Those suing the state brought forward experts suggesting that the affidavit requirements were written in a legalese that would confuse voters and turn them away; one linguistics expert, Dr. Deborah Bosley, said that it was written “at a readability level equivalent to the Harvard Law Review,” the court noted.

And the plaintiffs provided evidence that SB 3’s requirement that certain voters mail in evidence of their domicile was also not effective. After a trial court partially froze the law ahead of the 2018 election — keeping the law’s mandates but removing the fines and penalties — only 289 of 1,104 voters who were supposed to return documents did so.

Had the law’s requirements been in effect, 815 voters in 2018 would have had to pay up to $5,000 in fines, the trial court found.

The state rejected the notion that SB 3 had caused confusion during the 2018 elections, saying the claim came from “anecdotes and nonspecific hearsay arguments.”

But the Supreme Court sided with the lower court on Friday, finding that the evidence of longer lines and the failure to return forms in time in 2018 provided “sufficient evidentiary support” for the claim that the law had burdened the right to vote.

Then, the state took the argument further. Even if there was a burden on voting, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office argued the law could be struck down only if the harm was near universal. Even if the new law “imposes an unjustified burden on some,” the state wrote in its appeal, it should be struck down only if the burden appears “in all or virtually all of its applications.”

“A purported burden on some voters is insufficient to invalidate a law of general applicability,” the state wrote.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument as well.

Much of the disagreement over SB 3 has focused on whether it was justified to prevent voter fraud. The trial court had found that it wasn’t. To start, the court noted, the new documentation requirements would not stop someone interested in fraudulently voting from doing so. Secondly, the court continued, the amount of voter fraud recorded in the state is “illusory.”

The Supreme Court upheld that interpretation Friday.

“We are persuaded by the trial court’s analysis and determine that its findings are supported by the record before us,” the Supreme Court wrote. “Accordingly, we conclude that SB 3 is unconstitutional, as the State has failed to demonstrate that SB 3 is substantially related to the precise governmental interests it set forth as justifications necessitating the burdens the law imposes on the right to vote.”

The court also found that the Secretary of State’s Office could not amend the language in the affidavit in an attempt to make it more clear.

Notably absent from the 4-0 decision was Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald, who recused himself because he had defended SB 3 in court while serving as New Hampshire’s attorney general. He was appointed to the court by Sununu earlier this year.

The opinion set off fierce reactions from New Hampshire political leaders Friday morning.

Sununu lamented the decision in a statement.

“It’s disappointing that these common-sense reforms were not supported by our Supreme Court, but we have to respect their decision, and I encourage the Legislature to take the court’s opinion into account and continue working to make common-sense reforms to ensure the integrity of New Hampshire’s elections,” Sununu said.

House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, also expressed disappointment. But he said that the House would continue legislation to regulate voting in the state.

“While this outcome is not ideal, it does give the Legislature a renewed sense of purpose as we work together to ensure New Hampshire’s elections remain fair with open transparency,” Packard said.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the ruling confirmed their criticism of the bill.

“SB 3 added no security to our elections and unconstitutionally created a separate class of voters with different qualifications,” said Rep. David Cote, the deputy House Democratic leader and the former chairman of the House Election Law Committee. “The Supreme Court’s strong, unanimous ruling today, which concluded the state failed to ‘demonstrate that SB 3 is substantially related to an important governmental objective,’ confirms what Democrats said all along — there is no reasonable justification for enacting these unnecessary, confusing obstacles to the voter registration process.”

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Local schools examining potential impacts of 'divisive concepts' law
  • Updated

With the passage of the new state budget, including a controversial ban on the teaching of certain so-called “divisive concepts,” local school leaders say they’re working to determine what impact the new law could have on public education in the Monadnock Region.

“We are aware that the budget that passed last week included language that may affect curriculum. We will work with our teams and our board to determine what, if any, [effect] this will have on our current or future curriculum,” Jeremy Rathbun, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Monadnock Regional School District, said in a written statement this week. The Monadnock district covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy.

Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — said SAU leaders are likewise reviewing the language in the new law. He added that the N.H. Department of Education typically issues guidance for districts when legislation could affect schools.

“And we need to make sure we’re doing our due diligence to make sure we understand what [the new law] means, but also seek that input from the DOE, as well,” he said.

The state education department did not respond to messages seeking comment this week.

Among other provisions, the new law, which started as House Bill 544 before a version of the proposal was incorporated into the state budget, prohibits public employees from teaching “that an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The language in the bill has drawn sharp criticism from educators statewide, including the Monadnock Region. Last weekend, a group of Keene High School students and other area residents gathered on Central Square to protest the new law. Then, on Tuesday, more than half of Gov. Chris Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, including both local members, resigned in protest over Sununu’s decision to sign the law, saying it “aims to censor conversations essential to advancing equity and inclusion in our state.”

Supporters of the legislation have expressed concern over the teaching of critical race theory, a scholarly framework that approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power and holds that systemic racism is a part of American culture, and embedded in policies, laws and institutions.

But George Downing, chairman of the Keene Board of Education, said the legislation ”is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist here,” and that local educators are not teaching critical race theory or lessons that seek to discriminate against any students.

“All it does is make it harder to address the real issues we’re facing in the schools and in the communities,” Downing said Friday. “... How do we make our schools safe and welcoming for all our students? So it’s work that we’re going to have to continue, even though the language included in the budget is a roadblock to that.”

Downing added that the Keene school board, which in May passed a resolution opposing the “divisive concepts” bill, has contacted its legal counsel to review the language in the budget. The board does not meet again until August, which will give members plenty of time to look at a legal analysis of the new law before determining potential next steps.

“Regardless of the language of the budget, we’re going to have to find a way to meet our responsibilities while also not violating the new language included in the budget,” Downing said.

Scott Peters of Troy, who chairs the Monadnock Regional School Board, said he expects the N.H. School Boards Association to issue guidance on the new law, too. Typically, he said, the NHSBA issues twice-annual policy updates including professional legal analysis and sample policies, which local boards can adopt based on changes to state and federal law.

The Monadnock board had been considering a pair of proposals introduced in May by member Dan LeClair of Swanzey, who adapted the language for his motions from House Bill 544. Peters said Friday, though, that the board voted during its June 15 meeting to pause the policy committee’s review of LeClair’s proposals until the state legislative process was complete.

According to the minutes of that meeting, the Monadnock board also adopted a resolution opposing LeClair’s proposals, “which doesn’t mean that the district is against what passed at the state level, but that exactly what Dan presented is not what the board is going to adopt,” Peters said Friday.

Instead, he said, the Monadnock board will wait for guidance from the state school boards association before taking any further action on the issue.

“It could be that certain policies are already up to snuff, and this was just a hullaballoo,” he said. “It could be that some policies need to be updated as the law requires. The NHSBA are professionals, and we’ll let them do their work.”