Safety Commissioner tells panel state police body and dash cams to return

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CONCORD, NH – Dashcams and body cams may be returning to the New Hampshire State Police cruisers and chests after about a 20-year hiatus.

Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn said the state now has the funding and is “moving forward” with returning those recording devices to use. Quinn spoke during Thursday’s meeting of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who created the new commission to help address public concerns about police accountability, voiced support for such technology last week during a press conference. He said dash and body cameras benefit both the police and those they interact with.

Meeting remotely by video using Webex technology, the commission heard about that new plan from Quinn after defense attorney Donna Brown said that the state police body cams “went away” 20 years ago after racial profiling issues were voiced.

Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn

Speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Brown told the commission unequivocally that in New Hampshire police racial bias does exist. That was echoed in additional public testimony by Michael Dane of Stratham who said that people of color are five times as more likely to be incarcerated in the Granite State.

“We should be looking at why?” Dane said. He said if the commission is not uncomfortable exploring that question and others “you are doing it wrong.”

New Hampshire’s population of 1.3 million is 1.7 percent black. But its prison population is almost 17 percent black, the commission was told.

The commission has been charged by Sununu to listen to the public, collect information and in 45 days, report on changes to improve law enforcement training and accountability in the state.

It comes in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who was killed while in the custody of a white police officer. A videotape of the murder at the hands of police surfaced sparking worldwide outrage and protests, including many here in New Hampshire.

Brown expressed concern that police use traffic stops as a sort of fishing expedition to find laws being broken, and that was not lawful and similar to “stop and frisk” techniques which have been denounced around the country as tools of racial profiling.

Quinn, a member of the LEACT commission, told Brown the state police do not train for pretextual stops. “That is something we do not want to see happening here,” Quinn said. He welcomed more training in conscious and unconscious bias.

“Whatever we can do to increase training and support, Quinn said, “the culture here will be open-minded.”

He noted that Brown was correct that the state police did formerly have body and dash cameras. Quinn said state police “do have some funding so that project is moving forward.”

Brown said police are supposed to be “the good guys” but they are causing pain by pulling people over because of the color of their skin.

Brown gave an example where she helped humanize her client to a police officer after her client handed him the phone. The officer said her client was calling him “an (expletive) racist.”

She suggested he stop yelling, understand it was not about him, that her client had been the victim of racial profiling in the past and that if he would speak softly to her client that would be beneficial. She said within a few minutes her client and the officer were joking by the side of the road.

That officer should have been trained to deal with that rather than having to have her intervene by phone to de-escalate, Brown said.

She said she told the officer she did not think he was a racist but if she had been more candid, she would have said to him that many officers around the country are racist, whether they know it or not. Brown said it is time for an honest, likely painful discussion on systemic racism in police departments across the state and she said criminal defense attorneys have had “a front-row seat” to racial bias.

She noted an “easy fix” would be to have dash cams and body cams, which would really allow everyone to see what is going on out there.
Brown also said police academy training should include issues brought up in the case of the state. v. Ernest Jones, which considers bias.
“That is a new area of law that all police in the state will have to understand,” Brown said.

Quinn said “we want to work with you,” adding, “we are all trying to get to the same place.”

Hard of Hearing

Having the inability to communicate with an officer was also explored during the testimony. Through an interpreter, Susan Wolf-Downes, executive director of the New England Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc., said Police Standards and Training has been offered small grants in the past to learn about ways to better communicate with the deaf but she kept being turned down to the point that she didn’t try anymore.

She noted a terrifying time she and her husband, who is also deaf, were pulled over by police and the officer did not have a piece of paper to ask questions. They were let go but the encounter was akin to what some would face if they were in another country and did not know the language.

“Don’t ask if we can lip read,” she said. She noted the state has a police officer who is the child of deaf parents and another who is an interpreter.

“Use those resources,” she urged.

School Resource Officers

The 9-1-1 system was set up to deal with emergencies, but dispatchers are not trained to deal with mental health emergencies and who to dispatch the call to, the commission was told.

Michael K. Skibbe, a former defense attorney who works as a policy director for the Disability Rights Center for New Hampshire provided testimony on the subject of school resource officers.

He said there is no official policy outlining the roles and boundaries of SROs in relation to school administrators, and so often disciplinary matters that ought to be handled by the school are handled by officers, in effect criminalizing school misbehavior. Some of these students deal with mental health issues, physical or learning disabilities, or are students of color, and SROs do not receive specialized training to deal with these students, he said.

Ken Norton, a member of the commission and the executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Association for the Mentally Ill, noted that the federal FCC will be voting July 16 on the concept of moving to a 9-8-8 mental health emergency phone line to replace the current national suicide hotline. One benefit is that it would divert those calls going to law enforcement and instead to trained crisis counselors.

Next Meeting

The commission will resume taking public testimony tentatively on law enforcement training next Thursday, July 9 at 11:30 a.m. for two hours.
To connect with the meeting and get more information visit https://www.governor.nh.gov/accountability