In Portsmouth police reforms, some see ‘model’ for other towns

  • Mark Newport is chief of the Portsmouth Police Department. Olivia Falcigno

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 10/30/2021 5:27:08 PM

Over the past 18 months, advocates have consistently said better data is needed to understand New Hampshire’s criminal justice system and its disproportionate effects on people of color.

Now, thanks to a grassroots effort that began last year, Portsmouth is taking a swing at that problem.

On Tuesday, the Portsmouth Police Commission voted unanimously to have the city’s police department start collecting data on every police stop of a civilian — not just those that result in a written warning, citation or arrest.

The decision comes after a proposal to require similar data collection by all police departments in New Hampshire failed in the State House earlier this year.

Stakeholders say the new data will provide a more complete picture of who the Portsmouth police engage with, including their racial and ethnic composition.

“If we don’t know who’s being stopped and what happens in the course of a stop, it’s hard to know whether Portsmouth police officers are engaged in appropriate anti-bias policing,” said Lisa Wolford, an attorney and one of three Portsmouth residents who spearheaded the reform effort. “So, whether intentionally or otherwise, are they disproportionately stopping people of color, for example? Are they stopping people of color and then disproportionately asking to search their cars?”

The change is expected to take effect when the department rolls out a new dispatch system, which Portsmouth Police Commissioner Joe Onosko said could take 18 months.

Onosko believes the department is the first in New Hampshire to decide to collect this level of data. He estimated that officers currently document only about 8-10% of stops.

“So this is an incredible training tool, and it’ll be highly informative about what the police are doing,” he said.

A collaborative effort

Data collection was part of a larger package of police transparency and accountability changes the Police Commission adopted Tuesday, after a year-long process driven by local residents.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, Portsmouth residents were talking about policing in their own community, Wolford — who has worked as a public defender and in the Attorney General’s Office — recalled.

Wolford and two other Portsmouth residents — Stephanie Hausman, a public defender, and Marta Hurgin, a legal aid attorney — consulted with community members, officials and organizations including Black Lives Matter Seacoast; drafted a list of recommendations; and submitted it to the Police Commission with more than 100 signatures.

What followed over the next year was a series of meetings between the trio of residents, Onosko and police officials to discuss the various ideas. Participants described those meetings as collaborative and said the police department was receptive.

“We had some pretty frank discussions on why we do certain things, and they gave us some reasons why they’re asking for certain criteria,” said Police Chief Mark Newport. “And throughout the year that we worked on this, we came to some resolutions on the majority of the requests.”

“We had nothing to hide,” he added. “We’re trying to be as transparent as we could be.”

Earlier this month, the working group unveiled a set of joint recommendations, which the three-member Police Commission adopted Tuesday with minor amendments.

In addition to data collection, the plan includes posting more documents online, making the complaint process more accessible, soliciting feedback from historically marginalized groups and involving the Police Commission in decisions about whether to add officers to the state’s Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, a list of officers with potential credibility issues.

The department has already started on some of those items, including revising language on its website about how to submit complaints. The resident group had heard from some community members who felt their complaints had not been taken seriously, or were nervous about filing a complaint in the first place. Among other things, the police department agreed to remove a statement threatening anyone who made false statements with prosecution, finding it unnecessary and intimidating.

Meanwhile, the recommendations lay the groundwork for further discussion on other key issues.

In 2019, the Police Commission decided against buying body cameras, largely due to their cost relative to other priorities. On Tuesday, the commission agreed the city should take another look at the issue.

Additionally, Portsmouth will explore the possibility of non-police responses for certain issues, such as mental health. Data from the police department on the types of calls it handles will inform those discussions.

“I think the recommendations are definitely a great step forward as far as police transparency and accountability,” said Clifton West Jr., co-founder and executive director of Black Lives Matter Seacoast, adding that he expects the information it produces to “lead to a more transformative police department.”

Filling gaps in the data

The limited data that exist suggest people of color are disproportionately impacted by New Hampshire’s criminal justice system. While non-Hispanic Black people are roughly 2% of the state’s population, they made up about 5.5-6% of arrests and 6.5% of people in the state prison system in 2020. Around 6.5% of arrests and 6% of people in state custody were Hispanic, compared to 4.3% of the overall population.

But more comprehensive data about what’s driving those outcomes — including who police initiate contact with and how cases are prosecuted once they get to court — is lacking.

“There’s really no on-the-ground data about the demographic makeup of who is being stopped by police in New Hampshire,” said Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire and Portsmouth resident running for a seat on the Police Commission.

Data on police encounters with civilians — including those that don’t end in arrest — can shed light on disparities at later stages of the legal system, said Hans Menos, the vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, which the Portsmouth group consulted.

“All of the problematic downstream outcomes that we find to be disproportionate start with contact — the initial kind of frontline interaction,” he said. “So what that really means is if we’re arresting more people for certain crimes, if we’re finding more contraband and things on certain people, it’s worthy, in fact it’s necessary, to understand, what are our enforcement priorities? Who are we looking for?”

Last year, a police accountability commission formed by Gov. Chris Sununu recommended that all New Hampshire law enforcement agencies collect demographic data on arrests, citations and stops.

A police-reform bill introduced in the state legislature, SB 96, would have required departments to do so. But lawmakers dropped that provision from the final version of the bill, instead forming a committee to study the issue.

Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, who leads the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, says he’s generally supportive of collecting that data, partly because it could show when a department is doing a good job.

He noted, however, that many departments would find it difficult to collect with their existing record management systems — a concern the chiefs association also raised in its testimony on S.B. 96. Hollis Police Chief Joseph Hoebeke told a Senate committee that the software used by his department and many others in the state, known as IMC, didn’t have that capability. Even if it could be modified to include that, he said, it always costs more to add new features.

In Portsmouth, getting the right tech is a necessary step, officials say. The department had already been planning to upgrade its computer-aided dispatch system for other reasons, and will now make sure it can handle the additional data.

“We have an old system that won’t allow us to do what is being proposed,” Onosko said.

The department will also need hand-held devices for officers to enter the data, which will be based on their perceptions of civilians’ race and gender.

“We’re not gonna grill citizens for 90 seconds about their gender identity, their ethnicity,” Onosko said. “It’s not going to be an intrusive process.”

The Center for Policing Equity recommends using officer perceptions, as perceptions are what drives bias. By contrast, the initial version of SB 96 would have added fields for race and ethnicity to driver’s licenses and directed officers to rely on that.

In addition to analyzing and releasing stop data, Portsmouth police plan to use it in evaluations of individual officers.

The city also plans to track prosecution data, such as sentencing outcomes and judicial rulings on the constitutionality of officers’ actions, and has already brought on a master’s student as an intern to work on those efforts. While prosecutors have vast power to shape criminal justice outcomes, Scherr said data about how they use that authority is virtually nonexistent in New Hampshire.

“This is, I believe, a model for transparency, engagement and trust between the community and law enforcement,” Police Commissioner Stefany Shaheen said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I hope other communities will look at what we’ve done as a road map.”

Those involved in the effort said several factors helped it succeed, including knowledgeable advocates in the community and a police department open to change.

“If you don’t have a police department that is willing to work with you, I don’t know what that outcome would be,” Wolford said. “... There’s nothing that says they have to work with you.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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