N.H. state senators cut data collection from police bill

Monitor staff
Published: 3/20/2021 6:49:16 PM

Calls for more information on how New Hampshire police interact with people of color have fallen on deaf ears in the state Senate.

This week the Senate voted to advance a bill to address inequities in the criminal justice system and increase police transparency, but they removed one its most fundamental elements – data collection.

The bill, SB96, was amended to specifically remove any requirement for police to record and report racial information about who is arrested, searched or stopped by law enforcement. To aid with data collection, racial identifiers were to be added to driver’s licenses.

Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee whose amendment removed the data collection, said she found the original bill “very troubling.”

“If we were to suggest something like this five years ago, we would’ve been accused of racial profiling,” she said. “We should not be doing this, we should just not be doing it.”

Advocates for racial reform and members of the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, which maintained that the state needs a better way of identifying systemic racism by police before it can correct any problems, reacted with sharp criticism.

“A solution is being dismissed and turned away when there’s really no conceivable reason why,” said Joseph Lascaze of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and a member of the commission. “I just don’t understand why.”

The bill was drafted in response to recommendations from the commission, which included 14 members from diverse backgrounds, including law enforcement. One of the key recommendations was to gather data on the race and ethnicity of those who interact with law enforcement. All of the commission’s recommendations were endorsed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

A requirement to collect this data was included in the original text of SB-96, but Carson’s amendment removed it and instead calls for the formation of a committee to explore the feasibility of collecting of such data.

The amendment, which was ratified on March 10, drew a rebuke from criminal defense lawyers in the state as well as members of the LEACT commission itself. In a statement, commission members, including James T. McKim of NAACP Manchester, Ronelle Tshiela of Black Lives Matter Manchester, criminal defense representative Julian Jefferson, and Lascaze condemned the amendment.

“This will serve only to worsen the perception that our political leaders stand opposed to confronting racism and racial injustice in the Granite State,” they said. “We cannot understand the rational or imperative for removing this language from the bill.”

Lascaze said the intention of having racial information on the driver’s licenses has to do with the way data would be collected. The data that the state does collect is through the Department of Safety and the National Incident Based Reporting System. This information, examined previously by the Monitor, showed that people of color were arrested at higher rates than white people in the state.

The data is limited, Lascaze said, by the fact that it is only related to arrests as opposed to traffic stops and other law enforcement interactions. Additionally, since it is self-reported information, some law enforcement agencies do not comply with data-gathering and, in some cases, do it incorrectly.

Lascaze recalled a specific experience when he was pulled over by a police officer and was incorrectly reported as being white.

“This is what we’re trying to address,” said Lascaze, who is Black. Having race be part of a driver’s license would help ensure the correct information was recorded by law enforcement.

After the bill was amended, Robin Melone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, asked the Senate to reinstate the data collection measure.

“It is inexplicable that the Senate Judiciary Committee has taken steps to thwart collection of sought-after data about how (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) experience policing in New Hampshire,” she said.

Melone said she and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers believe that the LEACT recommendations “should be adopted without modification,” and that Carson’s concern that data collection should be studied is “without merit.”

“The only reason to obscure data is to ignore what it says,” Melone said. “And the available data paints a clear picture.”

Sen. Rebecca Whitley, a Concord Democrat, spoke in support of passing the bill, including the recommendations from the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency commission.

“While the legislature has a unique role in crafting policy, we should not be substituting our own judgment in this case for the role of so many who spent countless hours coming together to accomplish difficult, but necessary work,” she said.

Sen. Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat, also objected to the amendment.

“This was a special commission convened of experts, subject matter experts, a matter in which many of us are not experts, and so I think there’s an experience of a lot of people in our state that we cannot sit here and pretend we understand,” she said.

Carson was unmoved and defended the amendment.

“This commission does not overrule this legislature,” Carson said. “We have been elected to look at this material and make a decision and that is what we have done, that is our role. We do not give up our role as legislators just because a commission made a decision about what they think we should do.”

Leonard Harden, a criminal defense lawyer and a board member of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the formation of a study committee is an attempt to turn a blind eye to the issue.

“I think they want to hide from the data, they want to obscure the data, they don’t want the information,” he said.

Harden noted that he was speaking on his own behalf and not in his role as a board member for the association.

“I think it just kicks it down the road and it keeps us saying, ‘Not in New Hampshire, you know, we’re different.’ ” he said. “I don’t think that we are different.”

Despite objections from Senate members, the altered bill was approved. Whitley and Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, who had objected to the amendment, said the bill as a whole was still worth passing despite the change. The bill will now head to the House.

Lascaze vowed this is not the end of this issue. He and the ACLU would continue to fight for the original bill as it advanced through the Legislature.

“Right now,” he said, “we’re in our corners, and the bell is about to ring in the House and we’re going right back in.”


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