Incidents such as the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota 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 some well-known cases of police brutality in New Hampshire.
For example, 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.
Under current laws and rules, a New Hampshire police officer who witnesses misconduct should report it to a superior officer. Any member of the public can also report misconduct to local officials.
The agency employing the potential offender then conducts an internal affairs investigation. This investigation can result in discipline such as a suspension. If the misconduct is criminal (such as theft or sexual assault) there is also a criminal investigation that can result in criminal charges.
If an officer is suspended for more than one day, or convicted of a crime, by rule the department employing the officer must report it to the state Police Standards and Training Council.
The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council (PSTC) is responsible for training and certifying law enforcement officers in New Hampshire. After receiving a report of an officer’s misconduct, the PSTC can suspend or revoke an officer’s certification, which prevents that officer from working in law enforcement anywhere in New Hampshire.
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.
Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency
In June 2020 Gov. Sununu established the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) Commission. The commission was tasked with examining police training, procedures related to police misconduct, the relationship between law enforcement and the community, and so on.
The LEACT Commission issued a report with over forty recommendations in August 2020. Those recommendations covered everything from requiring police training on implicit bias to establishing a new, independent statewide entity to receive complaints alleging law enforcement misconduct. Some of these recommendations required legislative action, while others could be immediately implemented by the PSTC or other state agencies.
The LEACT Commission has published dashboards tracking the status of each recommendation. Several recommendations were included in 2021 bill SB 96, but Republican legislators removed some parts of that bill. For example, the Senate removed a provision that would allow people to voluntarily include their race on their driver’s licenses; that data could be used to analyze racial bias in police stops.
Some areas of debate
“Laurie list” of officers with credibility issues
For years the state Attorney General has maintained a list of officers whose credibility might come into question during a trial, known as the “Laurie list.” The formal name for the list is the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule. An officer can land on this list for use of excessive force, falsifying reports, lying in court, sexual harassment, and so on. Prosecutors have to share this information with the courts when an officer on the list testifies. Historically the public did not have access to the full list in order to protect the privacy of officers.
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.
Similar legislative proposals would ban the use of rubber bullets and/or tear gas against unarmed protestors.
Independent/public investigations of misconduct
As noted above, right now local law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating officer misconduct. They must report severe cases to the PSTC. Historically these investigations and PSTC hearings have not been open to the public. In 2021 a New Hampshire judge ruled that the PSTC must make hearings related to police misconduct open to the public, with rare exception.
There have been legislative proposals that would require all reports of police misconduct to go straight to the PSTC. Ideally this would reduce bias in local investigations and increase transparency. However, the PSTC was not created to be an investigative agency. There are also concerns about the right of officers publicly accused of misconduct to defend themselves.
In 2020 the LEACT Commission recommended that New Hampshire instead create a new, independent entity to investigate all reports of police misconduct. The entity would be staffed by attorneys and investigators and include community members. All law enforcement agencies would have to report alleged misconduct to this entity. Investigative findings would be public. There would be a right to appeal to the state Supreme Court. The New Hampshire Legislature created a commission to study this idea in 2021.
The idea of an independent entity has some overlap with the concept of civilian review boards. These groups, established in some other towns and cities in the U.S., 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.
Defunding the police
The Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc., the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups have called for governments to cut police budgets and instead spend that money on schools, affordable housing, health care, or other community programs.
Supporters argue that police resources should be focused on serious offenses such as sexual assault, murder, and burglary – not petty theft, drug use, speeding, or other minor crimes. When police enforce those minor crimes, it creates more opportunity for biased policing and unnecessary violence. (George Floyd was handcuffed by police for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill.)
Opponents are concerned that cutting law enforcement budgets could lead to an increase in crime. Police departments may also spend less on training if they are forced to make budget cuts. Instead of cutting police budgets, lawmakers could redirect funds towards more training and enforcement of major crimes.
So far there have been no major legislative efforts to decrease funding for the New Hampshire state police. Municipal police budgets are set at the local level.
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 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.
- The current, local process for investigating police misconduct is secretive and open to abuse. For example, a 2018 audit of the Salem police department revealed ignored public complaints, inadequate investigations of misconduct, and little town oversight. Public investigations, conducted at the state level, would insure police misconduct is not swept under the rug by local officials.
- 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.
- 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.
- If law enforcement agencies are required to publicly report all accusations of police misconduct to a state entity, it will expose officers to harassment and false accusations. New Hampshire may have trouble finding law enforcement recruits if officers are not provided adequate privacy and due process.
- 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.