What would police reform look like in NH and will it happen?

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Ronelle Tshiela of Manchester is a member of the governor’s LEACT panel and a graduate of Manchester Memorial High School. She’s currently a student at UNH and is dedicated to making sure liberty, justice, and equality are available to all in the Granite State despite trying times. Photo/Jessica Arnold

This is the second in a two-part series on police reform in NH. The first story can be found here.

Julian Jefferson, a staff attorney in the New Hampshire Public Defender’s office, has represented victims of racism and experienced it firsthand.

“I am a black man,” he said in his testimony before the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency. “I have lived in New Hampshire since 2008. I have been working in the criminal justice system since 2011. I can tell you that racism exists in this state and in our criminal justice system.”

Jefferson, who also served on the commission, described a litany of racially charged personal experiences and client prosecutions he’s had to defend. 

Attorney Julian Jefferson

“I have defended three different clients in cases where police used excessive force and then turned around, with the complicity of prosecutors, to overcharge cases. Thankfully for those clients, the citizens that served on their juries saw the excessive use of force for what it was,” he testified.

“The painful reality that I hope I can get you to see is that without my suit, I am just a black man … and that can be a dangerous thing to be in this country and in this state. We all have work to do to confront and change this reality.”

That was the work the commission set out to do. [Related story: State meets many police reform deadlines, much left to be done.] Whether that work will have the desired results remains to be seen. 

The commission was established by Gov. Chris Sununu this summer amid protests over policing and racial injustice in the spring, and was charged with developing recommendations to address the concerns raised by protesters. Sununu has endorsed all the recommendations, has put several into effect through executive order and set deadlines for others. The rest will head toward the state Legislature for approval.

Commissioners heard testimony that racism in policing is real in the Granite State, and not just a matter of the occasional “bad egg.” Law enforcement representatives on the commission maintained the problem was of limited scope in New Hampshire, but others disagreed.

“Racism in policing is not just a national problem,” according to Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, who submitted voluminous written testimony. “Even with the limited data collection that exists in the Granite State, this is also a New Hampshire problem.”

He cited statistics from a 2016 study by New Hampshire Public Radio showing that in New Hampshire, black people are incarcerated at the rate of 1,040 per 100,000 population. The rate for whites is 202 out of 100,000 and 398 for Hispanics.

“Black people have a 5 times greater chance of being jailed in New Hampshire compared to white people – a statistic that is well above the United States average in which black people are 3.5 times more likely to be in jail,” wrote Bissonnette. “In Hillsborough County – the most populous and diverse county in the state – black people are nearly 6 times more likely to be in jail than white people.”

A narrower view

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, representing the state Association of Police Chiefs on the commission, took a narrower view of the problem, while still welcoming the commission’s recommendations.

“New Hampshire law enforcement does an excellent job,” he said in a recent interview. “We are not perfect, but we do an excellent job. If you look at what’s going on nationally, we are not seeing those issues here. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve.”

The commission’s 48 recommendations, heartily endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu, chart a path toward those improvements. The most optimistic spin on the commission’s work is that the initiatives will result in significant changes over time.

If the recommendations are put into effect in the months and years ahead, at the local and state level, the training, oversight and practices of law enforcement will change significantly.

Starting with recruitment, officers will be more carefully screened for pre-existing biases that can’t be “trained away.” The training itself will be of longer duration and include more content relative to diversity, inclusion, de-escalation and alternatives to force.

Accountability to the public will be enhanced by two new oversight boards – an independent Misconduct Review Board to hear complaints and a Public Integrity Unit in the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute. After due process, the names of officers who violate rules of evidence or otherwise engage in unethical conduct will be made public.

Body cameras will be universally in place among state police, and hopefully among the majority of municipal police. Data on racial profiling and prosecution will be more readily available to track progress or lack thereof.

The roles of school resource officers will be more precisely defined in the hope of reducing the arrest and prosecution of juveniles in the schools, with the contracts between schools and police made public.

Part-time officers will have to comply with more extensive training requirements, mental health professionals will be embedded in tactical response teams, new guidelines will be issued on the use of force, and all departments will be more aggressively engaged in community outreach.

Will it happen and will it make a difference?

There’s little doubt that Sununu is determined to see the recommendations he can control put into action, but most of the really big stuff requires legislation and/or buy-in at the local level.

Chief Dennis is optimistic on both counts. “I believe (lawmakers) will support the recommendations in the legislature,” he said. “They are good for our communities, good for law enforcement. The governor has done his part through executive order to put some balls in motion, now there’s a legislative part. He already has the Attorney General working on legislation so it can move forward. There are a lot of balls in the air.”

One of the initiatives most likely to meet local resistances is the body camera recommendation, given the costs involved. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, the purchase cost per camera is approximately $189. Camera maintenance and video storage are bundled together for a per-camera cost of $739. The costs of administrative staff involved are estimated at $197 per camera. In larger departments, that can really add up.

“In Hanover, we’ve had them since 2018,” said Dennis. “We’ve had in-car cameras for 10 to 15 years. There are several agencies that already have body-worn cameras around the state, and many that don’t. I’ve heard some of the cost concerns. My personal opinion is it comes down to each community setting priorities of what they feel is important.”

Assuming most recommendations eventually take hold, the prediction of outcomes is mixed. 

Joseph Lascaze, a young black man who works as a Smart Justice Organizer with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, represented the ACLU on the commission. “When I look at these recommendations, if they are all passed, I see the community members of New Hampshire will have more faith and trust in law enforcement,” he said. 

“They will see law enforcement taking proactive steps to rebuilding the trust that’s been broken. I see community members feeling more comfortable when they are interacting with law enforcement. Things like body cams and dash cams, will make community members feel more comfortable … I see our community members being able to operate without a fear of being targeted based on their identity.”

Ronelle Tshiela addresses attendees of the May 30, 2020, Black Lives Matter rally in Manchester. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Ronelle Tshiela, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Manchester, served as a public member of the commission. Like Lascaze and others not affiliated with law enforcement, she was disappointed that the commission didn’t tackle the questions of qualified immunity, pre-textual stops or use of deadly force.

“I’m hoping that we’ll see meaningful change, However, I do think there is a ways to go,” she said. “It’s going to require a huge culture shift and I don’t think that can be done in a couple years, and I don’t think it’s on the backs of community members and citizens. It’s an issue for individual police departments to be thinking about. We still have a long way to go. There are some good things that came out of this, but I think we barely scratched the surface.”

Shifting priorities

Department of Safety Commissioner Bob Quinn will be responsible for implementing many of the recommendations, and is convinced they will “take a good thing and make it even better,” especially when it comes to outreach. “At the State Police, we welcome this,” he said, “especially the focus on increasing community relations. We have a team working on this now. It’s a matter of shifting priorities.”

“I think what I took personally from it is that the community wants this … and if it builds trust between the division and the community I think it’s worth prioritizing it. Nobody wants a more well-respected law enforcement community than the police officers doing their jobs every day.”

According to Quinn, the proposed expansion and redesign of the training programs at the state’s police academy will be particularly valuable to law enforcement at all levels. “I think you’ll see tremendous acceptance and interest in the new training and opportunities with the PSTC (Police Standards and Training Council),” he said.

For Tshiela, the biggest disappointment was the reluctance of the commission to develop more specific proposals to restrict the use of deadly force, with a majority of commission members preferring to address that issue through training rather than regulation.

“I think it would have been beneficial to talk about it,” she said, “especially considering that we were there because of the killing of George Floyd. A lot of people denied that was the sole reason we were there, but the truth is without all the controversy and protests this past summer, that commission would have never been created. So it was really disappointing that wasn’t discussed more heavily.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

About this Author

Dave Solomon

Dave Solomon is a freelance reporter.