There are troubling early signs that a recently formed study commission may be unable to agree on implementing a significant piece of unfinished business recommended by the LEACT commission Gov. Chris Sununu created last year to improve law enforcement accountability and transparency. Should the study commission fail to, the LEACT commission’s accomplishments will lose some considerable luster, and the effort to assure greater trust and transparency in statewide law enforcement will take a step back.
The LEACT commission responded to Sununu’s charge by submitting a report in August 2020 that included 48 unanimous recommendations. Sununu quickly backed all 48, took action to implement those he could by executive action and pledged to push for legislation to accomplish the remainder. By numerical count, a large number of the recommendations have been or are on their way to being implemented. These included important steps to enhance implicit bias training and to fund body cameras for state troopers. Most recently, Sununu last month signed legislation that requires greater openness for disciplinary hearings before the Police Standards and Training Council and disclosure of a Department of Justice listing of officers whose past misconduct might call into question their credibility as trial witnesses.
But, as Sununu himself noted at the signing ceremony to enact last month’s legislation, the work of implementing the LEACT commission recommendations is not done. In one of the three principal areas of the commission’s recommendations — those regarding reporting and investigation of police misconduct — the lead-off recommendation called for the “establishment of a single, neutral and independent statewide entity to receive complaints alleging misconduct.” It then specified certain components that entity should have, including “robust due process,” a right of appeal and other procedural protections for any officer in a complaint proceeding.
Critically, though, the LEACT commission specified that complaints be overseen by panels comprised of community members as well as judges, law enforcement officers and attorneys, to be “slightly” weighted toward law enforcement. It further specified that there be a statewide definition of what constitutes “misconduct,” that misconduct investigations follow consistent and defined standards and that statewide standards be applied to determine whether misconduct occurred.
This is a common-sense proposal, recognizing as it does that it ill serves the state, the law enforcement community and the goal of maintaining public confidence in the police to have a patchwork of standards and mechanisms for handling complaints that may vary and be applied inconsistently from town to town or agency to agency. And the involvement of oversight members from outside law enforcement will particularly add a significant measure of public trust that misconduct complaints will be received and dealt with seriously.
Nevertheless, negotiations to implement the proposal stalled and the Legislature instead created a study commission charged with proposing legislation by Nov. 1. The nine-member study commission, which includes stakeholders from law enforcement and the public, is headed by Attorney General John Formella, and reports of its initial meetings raise concern there may be backsliding, with some members expressing doubt about the need for an independent statewide entity as envisioned by the LEACT commission. Sen. Sharon Carson, the Londonderry Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned whether state oversight of local police department misconduct investigations might be duplicative — “kind of looks like a double jeopardy,” she said. And Londonderry Police Lt. Mark Morrison, also a study commission member, stated there’s “no shortage of accountability now” and he’s “not sure what the purpose is.”
Those objections miss the mark, however. The LEACT commission’s proposal for an independent, statewide entity aims to assure uniformity in handling misconduct complaints throughout the state and that there be community involvement in the process to build public confidence in fair and consistent handling of complaints, for the protection of the officer involved as much as for the benefit of the public. The proposal recognizes that, at a time when serious questions are being raised throughout the country that law enforcement systems may be intimidating and deter some from bringing forth misconduct complaints, it’s critical to alleviate any concerns that that may be or become the case in New Hampshire.
Gov. Sununu needs to continue to stand behind the LEACT commission’s recommendation and pressure the Legislature to enact it. If the Legislature doesn’t, the success he has been claiming for his LEACT commission initiatives will be meaningfully undercut. More importantly, a significant opportunity to assure continued confidence in law enforcement accountability in the state will have been missed.