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As the Legislature grapples with a number of efforts to increase police transparency in the state, Tuesday will be an early test for lawmakers’ appetites.
A pair of bills up for hearings Tuesday afternoon would take the state in starkly different directions, with one putting restrictions on the public’s ability to gain access to information about potential officer misconduct, and the other opening it up.
The first, Senate Bill 39, would directly exempt any information in an officer’s personnel files from becoming public under the state’s right-to-know law, which allows citizens to request and receive government documents. Currently police personnel files can only be disclosed if there is a compelling public interest, a determination that can only be made by a judge.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, would take such a balancing test out of a judge’s hands. The bill would also exempt internal investigations and pre-employment background check investigations from disclosure.
Senate Bill 41, meanwhile, would allow public access to certain police disciplinary hearings. Presently, the Police Standards and Training Council is authorized to carry out disciplinary hearings against officers. That can involve calling witnesses and requiring that they testify under oath, taking written testimony and even issuing subpoenas. Anyone whose rights might be affected is allowed to bring along an attorney.
Moving forward, those hearings would be public.
Under the bill, those proceedings could be closed to the public if one of the parties argued that confidential information would be disclosed, “and that the disclosure creates a compelling interest outweighing the public right of access,” the bill states.
Sponsored by Republican Sens. Harold French of Franklin and John Reagan of Deerfield, that bill is set for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon. SB 39 is set for a hearing in that same meeting.
The bills come up as New Hampshire’s Republican governor has sought to push the state toward more transparency, in the wake of widespread national demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last May.
In September, Gov. Chris Sununu endorsed all 48 recommendations for police reform in New Hampshire that were drawn up by a study commission of civil rights advocates and law enforcement over the summer
By October, Sununu had issued an executive order to implement 20 of those reforms, which included a directive that the Attorney General’s Office create a new “Public Integrity Unit” to investigate misconduct accusations, including against law enforcement.
But of the other 28 recommendations, many are changes that require the Legislature to act, including a scheme to gradually release the “Laurie list” – the list of officers who have been found by supervisors to have “sustained” complaints of misconduct, some of which includes falsifying evidence and using excessive force.
A plan to create a new statewide database of misconduct complaints would also need legislative buy-in.
It is unclear how the changed power-dynamic in the State House might affect that. In November, Republicans flipped the House and Senate from Democratic control.
French was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers to vote against moving forward with an effort to subject the Laurie List to the right-to-know law. That effort died on the Democratically-controlled Senate floor in January 2020.
“There is a need for further examination of the consequences of the language,” French said on the Senate floor at the time.
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