Editorial: MacDonald shows respect for the public

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Much of journalism is a fight for information. Reporters conduct interviews, file right-to-know requests and pore over documents, all in an effort to extract, confirm and weave together the small details that collectively become the story.

The process can be frustrating, because the agencies and departments that should be reflexively accountable to the people often stall when information is requested.

Such actions are philosophically at odds with the preamble to the state’s right-to-know law, known as 91-A, which states that “openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.”

While most local, state and federal officials may agree with 91-A in spirit, many fall short of making a maximum effort to ensure public access to public information. And that’s why we feel compelled to applaud the state Attorney General’s Office, under the leadership of Gordon MacDonald, for its recent dedication to transparency and the pace at which it releases information, especially regarding police-involved shootings.

As an example, we point to the shooting in Keene just before 3 p.m. on July 10.

At approximately 4:30 that afternoon, news outlets received a release confirming the shooting and promising additional information as soon as possible. At 5:34, an update included the exact time of the shooting, the location and a brief description of the confrontation. At 10:34 the next morning, another update provided the name, age and medical condition of the man who was shot, as well as new details about the confrontation. The release also said that the names of the officers involved would be released following formal interviews. That information came just two days later, and also included the three officers’ career law enforcement experience.

A month earlier, the attorney general was similarly forthcoming following a police-involved shooting outside of the New Hampshire State Liquor Store in Hampton.

This embrace of transparency did not begin on MacDonald’s first day on the job. On May 19, just about a month after MacDonald was sworn in, police shot an unarmed Vermont man on Interstate 89 in Hopkinton and shut down the highway for hours. It took six days for basic details, such as the man’s name, to be released. News outlets were rightfully outraged.

But this week, after a series of right-to-know requests, the Attorney General’s Office released dispatch calls and bystander video from the I-89 shooting, after initially refusing. This, too, represents a change for the better. Previous attorneys general would hold on to these public records until after a criminal trial, which could take many months.

The release of the video and audio records from the May 19 shooting demonstrates that the public and law enforcement are both served by transparency. People now have a better understanding of what happened, and police aren’t subjected to gossip about poor training or cover-ups.

For a long time, information about police-involved shootings was released only after lengthy investigations were complete, which would typically take weeks or months. MacDonald has proven that such delays are unnecessary. While previous attorneys general made a conscious choice to hold on to information for as long as they pleased, MacDonald has made a conscious choice to communicate with the people of New Hampshire in a timely and responsible manner.

We are grateful for the change, and hope others follow MacDonald’s lead. Until then, the people must continue to assert their right to know.