Capital Beat: Right to know bills advance in State House 

Monitor staff
Published: 3/9/2019 8:07:55 PM

There are 12 pages, each one a meticulous accounting of dates, departments and red flags.

“Nashua PD,” “8/16/18”: “Falsifying Reports or Records.”

“Windham PD,” “5/31/18”: “Deception.”

“Claremont PD,” “7/20/17”: “Truthfulness.”

But New Hampshire’s “Laurie List” – the state Department of Justice’s accounting of police officers whose histories that may imperil their credibility in court – is missing some crucial aspects: names and details.

For months, New Hampshire news organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union have pushed in Superior Court for the state to submit the names on that list to public disclosure. This week, that effort got its first major boost from the Legislature.

In a 19-0 bipartisan vote Tuesday, members of the House Criminal Justice Committee recommended a bill to eliminate confidentiality around the Laurie’s List entirely, rocketing the legislation to the House floor with a full endorsement.

House Bill 155 would repeal the confidentiality clause under RSA 105:13-b, which holds that any “exculpatory evidence” relating to a testifying police officer’s personnel file must be shared with the defendant, but otherwise that file remains sealed shut.

The bill, set to appear on the House floor next Thursday, would effectively make that list public. But it would also broaden the existing law by allowing prosecutors to review the full personnel file before turning it over to defense, and shielding officers from termination solely because they’re on the list.

Sponsor Paul Berch says those are necessary changes to keep New Hampshire on par with its Constitutional duties to defendants.

Releasing the names of officers to the public, Berch added, was simply the logical next step.

“This should not be surprising,” Berch said to the committee last month. “The default position of the New Hampshire Constitution is that the public has a right to know, subject to certain limitations, what its employees are doing. These kinds of lists are public in numerous other states and the skies have not fallen in.”

The ACLU has chimed in too, supporting the disclosures as a way to put police officers on the same level as other government employees.

Technically, any government employee can have his or her personnel file released on request to the public; whether that happens comes down to a legal balancing test of whether it meets the public interest, the organization argued.

And in the case of officers, the ACLU added, that public interest is high.

“In fact, the public interest in disclosure is greater with respect to the EES/Laurie List that it would be for the personnel records of other government employees,” the organization testified at the committee’s hearing. “This is because police officers are unique public servants who have the special ability to deprive citizens of their life and liberty, and who appear as professional witnesses in criminal cases – and can have significant influence with a jury.”

Police groups are less than thrilled.

Steve Arnold, state director of the New England Police Benevolent Association, stressed that the list is not the final word on an officer’s integrity. Names are added without thorough investigations and justifications, he argued.

But releasing names on that list in a public spreadsheet would effectively make it so, Arnold said. 

“I would suggest that this bill simply would have a guilty finding determined, and the name of a police officer tarnished before a proper process would determine the validity of the designation,” Arnold told the committee.

For Arnold and other police representatives, Berch’s bill is a step backward from a compromise reached just around a year ago. Last April, Gov. Chris Sununu announced new Justice Department guidelines to require more thorough investigations to be conducted before an officer can end up on the list, and to provide an off-ramp to allow those to be removed from the list if new evidence comes forward.

“Everyone agrees that bad cops should be taken off the street,” Sununu said then. “But our men and women in law enforcement deserve the benefit of the doubt, and they deserve the same robust process protections as any criminal defendant would have in court.”

To vault those existing names into the public eye, Arnold said, would add to the same stigma Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald were trying to undo.

Berch uses a different word to discuss the issue: accountability. And his approach, he says, is the proper vehicle to provide it.

“I understand unions and I support unions,” he said of officers. “Their job is to support their members and I respect that. But the Legislature has its job also.”

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