It has been four months since the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police triggered disbelief, outrage and protests over social injustice and systemic racism. The protests have continued nationwide, though in New Hampshire not at the fevered pitch that was seen across the state in the early weeks following Floyd’s death.
The critical challenge for the nation is to turn protests into progress. That of course requires everyone to look inward and honestly assess and address their own prejudices. But it also requires government response as well. Such a response has been distressingly non-existent at the federal level, primarily because President Trump is so intent on making law-and-order a campaign issue that he can barely bring himself to acknowledge — or even say the names of — social-injustice victims, much less propose any tangible steps to address the long-festering issues.
Fortunately, that abdication of responsibility has not been the case in New Hampshire. To his credit, Gov. Chris Sununu acted swiftly following Floyd’s killing, not just expressing personal outrage at his death and support for peaceful protesting, but assembling an advisory body to make recommendations, principally regarding law enforcement. Moving smartly, the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency held over two dozen meetings, hearing testimony and considering written statements from experts and members of the public, and submitted its report to the governor and the legislative leadership on Aug. 31.
The report (which can be viewed at www.governor.nh.gov/accountability) makes 48 specific recommendations in three broad areas: to increase law enforcement training and standards; to provide greater transparency in handling allegations of police misconduct; and to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Among the more notable proposals are those for annual training for police on such topics as implicit bias, de-escalation and ethics and to set statewide uniform minimum, best-practices policy standards for use of force and other conduct. To promote greater transparency, the commission also proposed establishing an independent statewide body to handle all police misconduct allegations and report its findings publicly and encouraging all law enforcement agencies to use body or dash cameras. And its report urged a statewide emphasis on community policing and engagement and uniformity and public disclosure of school resource office arrangements.
The commission also went beyond its principal charge to call for reforms with respect to mental health, in particular the embedding of mental health professionals in tactical response teams and closer police-community partnerships to address substance abuse and mental health issues. Further, it called for training and screenings to assure any mental well-being issues of law enforcement officers are addressed.
Adding credibility to the commission’s work is that its members — who include representatives of state and local law enforcement, the state ACLU and Manchester Black Lives Matter chapters, the state Human Rights Commission and the governor’s Diversity and Inclusion Council — were unanimous in their recommendations. And critical to the report is their strong recommendation that the governor and the Legislature provide necessary funding to implement their proposals.
Last week, the governor endorsed all the commission’s recommendations and said he has directed the attorney general to craft legislation with the hope the Legislature will act on it this fall. The devil’s always in the details, of course, but the Legislature should do so promptly. Right now, the state budget is more than customarily challenged because of the pandemic, and we hope the governor is prepared to spend some political capital to enable implementation of all the recommendations at the state and local level. We have observed before that issues of racial injustice involving law enforcement are comparatively infrequent in New Hampshire. Still, the commission’s report emphasizes that there is room for improvement, and, to steal a health-care term, its recommendations can be considered preventive medicine.
But no one should think that the job will be over if the commission’s recommendations are funded and implemented, because there’s more to addressing systemic racism than only addressing concerns surrounding law enforcement. This point was made by the governor’s COVID-19 Equity Response Team, which Sununu charged in May with developing strategies to address the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on racial and ethnic minorities. In July, the group submitted an extensive set of recommendations specific to the pandemic. But it also concluded that the public health crisis had “further widened” an existing disparity gap and called for addressing a range of inequities in education, healthcare, housing, voting and other areas it termed “drivers of disparity and inequity.” (Its report can be found at www.governor.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt336/files/documents/equity-response-team.pdf). We hope the governor and the Legislature will address the Equity Response Team’s recommendation as promptly as they should the proposals in the law enforcement commission’s report.