Policing issues shake up support

Monitor staff
Published: 10/12/2020 4:54:05 PM
Modified: 10/12/2020 4:53:53 PM

When it comes to its political endorsements, the New Hampshire Trooper’s Association has a long streak of independence.

The powerful union of state police troopers backed Democrat Colin Van Ostern in the race for governor against Chris Sununu in 2016. They then opted to back Gov. Sununu in the 2018 election. And in 2020, they’ve flipped back to the Democratic candidate, giving a boost to Democrat Dan Feltes against Sununu again.

But in this year’s New Hampshire elections for Congress, the Trooper’s Association and other law enforcement unions appear to be relying on a new metric to determine which candidates to support: positions on police reform.

So far, candidates who have been cautious or opposed to national reform of law enforcement this year have been embraced by Granite State police unions. Candidates that have signed onto police reform efforts have been left behind.

On Friday, the Trooper’s Association stood next to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen outside their Concord headquarters, a stone’s throw from the Democratic Party offices.

The Association was endorsing Shaheen, Executive Director Marc Beaudoin said, in part because of the work she had done in the Senate bringing programs in to fight the spread of opioids and support law enforcement.

“She’s been instrumental in securing funds to help with different crises that we’ve been dealing with here in New Hampshire, such as the opioid crisis,” Beaudoin told reporters.

But then he mentioned another factor.

“She’s also been very supportive of law enforcement, with, you know, her stance on qualified immunity and police reform,” Beaudoin continued. “So it’s always good to have a positive conversation.”

That’s a distinction unique to 2020. Ever since a group of high profile deaths of Black men and women in police custody rippled across the country, an effort emerged in certain wings of both parties to introduce a host of reforms, including an end to “qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity is a legal defense available to law enforcement in civil cases; it effectively stops officers from being sued for alleged Constitutional violations if their actions do not violate “clearly established” law. Supporters say it wards off frivolous, damaging lawsuits around standard law enforcement actions; critics say it shields police departments from a desire for meaningful reform.

In June, House Democrats pushed for a broad package of legislation known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which contained deep-set changes to policing in federal law including the explicit reversal of “qualified immunity.”

But the reforms splintered New Hampshire’s congressional Democrats. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Shaheen both said they were opposed to the end to qualified immunity, while Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas voted for the bill.

Now, those decisions appear to have affected police endorsements in some races. While the Trooper’s Association backed Pappas in 2018 during his race for the seat left open by retiring Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, this year is different. With only three weeks to go until Election Day, the association has not endorsed anyone in Pappas’s race for re-election against Republican Matt Mowers.

The association did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Meanwhile, Pappas has seen two other police unions fully flip their 2018 endorsements against him since he backed national reform. In September, Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association and the Manchester Association of Police Supervisors both endorsed Mowers over Pappas, despite supporting Pappas in 2018.

They cited the push to end qualified immunity as a key factor.

“Once he got down to Congress, Pappas changed,” the unions said in a joint statement. “But as politicians across the country attack our police departments, Matt Mowers has had our backs. When politicians in Washington voted to remove qualified immunity from police officers, Mowers stood with us. When others wanted to defund the police, Mowers defended us.”

For his part, Pappas has stood by his support of the Justice in Policing Act, which in June he said “puts accountability and transparency front and center while also focusing on improving training, curtailing excessive use of force, and increasing accountability for bad actors.”

“I supported the bipartisan George Floyd Justice in Policing Act because it’s an important step that begins the conversation about what we can do to reduce instances of brutality. There were common-sense provisions in the bill such as banning chokeholds, requiring body cameras, and seeking greater accountability that have broad support. Achieving community consensus is my goal and I’ll continue working to bring people together and take steps that will address injustice and allow law enforcement to focus on keeping us safe,” said Pappas in a statement to the Monitor Monday.

Beyond police, the idea of ending qualified immunity has broad support among the public. Sixty-six percent of Americans believe that civilians should have the ability to sue officers in cases of police misconduct, a Pew Research Center poll found in July.

Shaheen disagrees though, citing what she said would be negative impacts on police departments should the civil defense be ended.

“I think it has ramifications in terms of being able to recruit and retain law enforcement, to be able to do their jobs,” she said at the press conference Friday.

On that she agrees with her Republican opponent, Corky Messner, who on Oct. 1 received an endorsement from the New England Police Benevolent Association. That union praised Messner’s “unrelenting and pro-police stance regarding our membership and our brethren in the Granite State.”

In July, Messner told N.H. Public Radio he was open to some police reform like removing “bad cops” and expanding de-escalation training, but that he was opposed to anything along the lines of reducing funding for departments.

Shaheen supports other means of police reform, including a list of recommendations this summer from the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, which include the release of the Laurie List of officers with misconduct reports, and the equipment of body cameras on all state police.

And she noted there are civil lawsuits that take place against police departments with or without the qualified immunity defense.

Beaudoin, stepping up next to the podium, agreed.

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