New Hampshire took meaningful steps toward greater transparency in law enforcement this month with Executive Council action followed by Wednesday’s signing into law by Gov. Chris Sununu of three bills passed by the Legislature. Together, they entitle the governor to begin a victory lap, but it would be premature for him — or indeed anyone in the New Hampshire — to conclude nothing more need be done to assure that law enforcement in the state remains free from systemic racism and implicit bias.
Gov. Sununu acted quickly following the murder of George Floyd last May to form the so-called LEACT commission to assess law enforcement accountability, community and transparency. He swiftly endorsed all its 48 unanimous recommendations last summer and took action to implement those he could by executive order while pledging to seek legislation to address the remainder. The bills he signed Wednesday implemented some of the recommendations.
Sununu’s action comes on the heels of Executive Council approval on Aug. 5 of nearly $3.4 million to equip New Hampshire state troopers with body and cruiser cameras. Their use by all New Hampshire’s law enforcement agencies was a LEACT commission recommendation, and the state’s investment in them for the State Police will be money well spent, both to enhance law enforcement through better evidence collection and to provide greater transparency. As State Police Col. Nathan Noyes told the council, public complaints tend to decrease when cameras are used, and the step “is long overdue for our agency.”
As for the legislation signed Wednesday, it should result in greater openness regarding police misconduct allegations and greater public confidence in police disciplinary proceedings and the general high quality of law enforcement in the state. The legislation requires that disciplinary hearings before the Police Standards and Training Council be public unless a compelling interest in confidential information outweighs the public interest. Another provision would make public the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule maintained by the Department of Justice, which contains information about officers whose past misconduct might call into question their credibility as trial witnesses. Several news organization, including this one, sued to make the list public under the state’s right-to-know law.
As significant as these steps are, the legislation falls short of achieving all that the LEACT commission recommends for greater transparency and accountability. Though the investment in body cameras for the State Police is welcome, the Legislature failed to appropriate state financial support for them at the local level, though it did establish a grant program should federal or other funding be received. The commission also called for the creation of an independent statewide entity to handle all police misconduct complaints, which would lead to a uniform standard throughout the state of what constitutes misconduct and enhanced public confidence through making sustained findings public. The Legislature chose instead to form a commission to recommend legislation, which only this week held its first meeting.
The Legislature also kicked the can down the road when it failed to enact the LEACT commission’s call for enhanced collection and analysis of demographic data for all police stops and arrests “regardless of disposition.” Such information is critical to assessing the effectiveness of enhanced training and other steps to guard against racial profiling and implicit bias. Instead, one of the bills Sununu signed Wednesday calls only for a study of what the legislation dismissively refers to as “whether or not the state should be collecting data on race and ethnicity.”
Meanwhile, many of the LEACT commission’s recommendations require action at the local level. Keene has been addressing them — it is the only area police department to have achieved the recommended accreditation from CALEA, the national credentialing authority for law enforcement agencies, and is pursuing plans to deploy body and cruiser cameras — but it will require continued commitment from Sununu and his administration, pressure on the Legislature and, yes, funding from the state if he and they remain serious about fully implementing the LEACT commission recommendations.
A further troubling concern is the more recent mixed messaging coming from Sununu. Earlier this year, the governor asserted there is no systemic racism in the state — a statement at odds with the conclusion of an ad hoc committee’s report to the Keene City Council. And the so-called “divisive concepts” law that Sununu agreed to as part of the budget in June casts a pall over efforts to provide training on implicit bias, leading the majority of members of his own diversity and inclusion advisory panel to resign in protest.
Sununu is right to applaud the extent of implementation of LEACT commission recommendations thus far. But the state will be badly served if anyone thinks the work is done.