Recent incidents such as the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have put a spotlight on police brutality in the United States.
There is no legal definition of police brutality. The term generally includes the excessive use of force by police, whether or not that force rises to the level of criminal assault.
Notable events in NH
There are two recent, highly publicized incidents of police brutality in New Hampshire.
Two Seabrook police officers were fired in 2014 after video surfaced of them shoving a suspect head-first into a wall and then pepper-spraying him while he lay on the ground. One of the officers served 21 days in jail after pleading guilty to simple assault.
In 2016 a New Hampshire state trooper was filmed by a news helicopter beating a suspect in Nashua after a high-speed chase. That trooper pled guilty, received a suspended jail sentence, and agreed to never again work in law enforcement.
Accountability for law enforcement
Local police departments in New Hampshire each have their own policy about when to use different levels of force.
Anyone can complain to local officials about the conduct of a law enforcement officer. If that officer’s conduct violates department rules, he or she may be disciplined or fired. If the officer committed a crime, such as assault, he or she may be prosecuted.
Members of the public and local law enforcement can also submit complaints about police brutality to the state attorney general, who will investigate and prosecute officers for violating the law.
According to an analysis by the Union Leader, 28 citizens filed complaints with the state attorney general about police misconduct from 2006 through 2016.
The New Hampshire attorney general must also investigate every officer-involved shooting in the state.
According to an analysis by the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire police shot 32 civilians from 2005 through 2016. The attorney general found all but three shootings were justified.
The U.S. Department of Justice also has the power to prosecute law enforcement officers for misconduct that violates a person’s civil rights. That includes physical assault, sexual misconduct, etc.
Policy changes in NH
Police departments around the United States, including departments in New Hampshire, are starting to use body cameras to record officers’ activity on the job.
Ideally body cameras provide clear evidence if an officer did or did not use excessive force. Body cameras therefore discourage police brutality and false accusations of brutality.
Some people are concerned about the negative impact body cameras have on privacy for officers, victims, and bystanders.
New Hampshire law regulates the use of body cameras, for example requiring officers to turn off cameras during strip searches. State law does not require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
The federal government makes some military equipment, such as armored vehicles, available to local police departments.
Opponents believe this equipment, which can even include grenade launchers and bayonets, enables police departments to react to situations with excessive force. As a result, New Hampshire legislators have considered several bills that would limit the ability of police departments to acquire military equipment. No such limits have become law.
Law enforcement argues that military equipment increases the safety of officers. Heavy duty vehicles also allow local officers to help more during natural disasters.
Other policy debates
The American Civil Liberties Union recommends that police departments involve members of the public when investigating police misconduct and setting department policies. Ideally such civilian review boards eliminate any bias in investigations and improve transparency around police misconduct.
Opponents argue civilians are not qualified to evaluate police policies and conduct.
New Hampshire state law does not require police departments to use civilian review boards, although towns and cities may choose to use them.
According to an analysis by the Concord Monitor, about one-third of the civilians shot by New Hampshire officers between 2005 and 2016 had a possible mental illness. Some advocates believe that police would have fewer violent encounters with people suffering from a mental illness if the state supported more mental health services.
“Police brutality is an issue in New Hampshire that lawmakers must address.”
- There are no civilian review boards at the local or state level in New Hampshire, meaning law enforcement are policing themselves, leaving too much room for bias and secrecy. Many civilian review boards are unpaid, so this meaningful reform has a minimal cost.
- There is no official database of complaints about police misconduct in the United States or New Hampshire. There is not even an official tracking system for fatal police shootings. In New Hampshire the best data collection has been done by non-government organizations such as the Union Leader and Concord Monitor, instead of being reported by a government office. With no reliable statistics on police brutality, there is no way to know the scope of police misconduct in New Hampshire. It is best to err on the side of caution and implement policies that protect the safety and civil rights of the public.
- By making military equipment available to local police departments, the federal government has given local law enforcement more power than ever before. To balance this power, New Hampshire needs to implement new checks on police use of force.
“Police brutality is not an issue in New Hampshire.”
- The recent, highly publicized incidents of police brutality in New Hampshire resulted in swift criminal convictions. This shows New Hampshire already has an effective response to police brutality.
- According to data gathered by the Washington Post, New Hampshire had the 7th lowest rate of police shootings in the United States in 2016, with just two fatal shootings. This shows New Hampshire police are some of the least violent in the nation.
- There is no need for state government to take away local control and saddle towns with the cost of mandated reforms if municipalities already have the tools to combat police brutality. There is no state law that prevents local police departments from implementing civilian review boards, body cameras, or other reforms aimed at decreasing police brutality.