Police departments vary on transparency, responses to Right to Know requests show 

  • New Hampshire State Police Trooper vehicles off of Hazen Drive in Concord.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/12/2022 7:16:23 PM

Four days after Sandwich Police Department Chief Shawn Varney received a New Hampshire Right to Know request for 20 years of police records, the town emailed back a 63-page attachment containing information on budgets, hiring and officer demographics dating back to 2000.

Ossipee, a town 19 miles to the southeast, was sent an identical request at the same time last April. Nearly a year later, Police Chief Tony Castaldo continues to ignore the law and hasn’t responded.

Over a period of 10 months, Ossipee was mailed nearly two dozen copies of a Right To Know request seeking annual police roster and hiring records. In addition to the letters, the town received multiple emails and phone calls. Ossipee, which has a population and budget twice the size of Sandwich and a 10-member police department, has yet to acknowledge the request with a return email, phone call or written letter. By law, they had five days to respond.

Eventually reached by phone, an administrative assistant confirmed they ignored the request because it was confusing.

These two towns’ responses to the same request illustrate how citizens seeking access to government records under RSA 91-A, New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law, can encounter different levels of access depending on what agency holds those records.

Following statewide efforts to increase police transparency, the Concord Monitor partnered with the Granite State News Collaborative last year to gather data from every law enforcement agency in the state to document the changes in police staffing over the past 20 years.

The idea was to track the growth and diversity of New Hampshire’s police force over two decades.

More than 240 departments across the state received Right to Know requests for information on budgets, hiring and officers demographics going back to 2000. Stories based on analysis of this data will be published in the coming months. Readers can view all of these requests and departments’ responses on MuckRock News, a nonprofit site that helps streamline and keep track of public record requests.

Rejections andradio silence

Some towns, like Weare, outright rejected the requests they received.

Weare Police Department Administrative Assistant Emily Dauphinais wrote in a response letter that the information was exempt from the Right to Know law because the request would require the department to create new records, which is not required under the statute. Calls and emails attempting to clarify which part of the request required new records were not returned.

In contrast to Weare, other towns released current and past department rosters, payroll records and hiring records, in addition to years of budgetary records.

Under the Right to Know law, a government body has five business days to respond to public records requests. However, many police departments required repeated reminders before acknowledging the request, which was sent though MuckRock to keep the process open and transparent to the public.

A dozen departments never acknowledged requests and failed to send records, even after multiple follow-up emails and phone calls. Those departments are in the towns of Hill, Deerfield, Fitzwilliam, Ossipee, Northumberland, Plainfield, Stark, South Hampton, Goshen, Freedom, Stratford and Atkinson. Some departments received the requests at different times than others, but all requests were sent more than five months ago.

Some requests languished on old fax machines or were sent to email addresses from department websites that were no longer in use, while other departments said they ignored requests because of confusion about the Right to Know law or concerns about cybersecurity.

Ossippee Police Department Secretary Jennifer Benedict confirmed when reached by phone that she had received multiple copies of the request, first sent in April. However, because the request included information from MuckRock about an option to upload responsive documents online as well as mail or email them, the department decided to ignore the letter.

“It seemed really sketchy,” Benedict said.

Initially, the Plaistow Police Department also rejected the request, claiming that the information requested was exempt from disclosure under the law. However, the department sent responsive documents after being told that this story would be published. “There was a lot of confusion on it,” said Police Department Secretary Brian MacHarrie.

The small town of Canaan in Grafton County ignored emailed requests for months because of a reluctance to spend the staff time searching for records. When reached by phone in October, Town Administrator Mike Samson said that he had no intention of hiding the information, but he lacked the manpower to search for employment records dating back 20 years.

“This is a small town. I can’t go back to 2000, and if you want to go to court, I’m happy to explain to the judge that I just don’t have the personnel to do this,” Samson said. In January, he provided the Monitor with limited information from a pared-down version of the request by phone.

At agencies’ discretion

Agencies can choose to prioritize in-person document inspection or charge fees for paper copies, which created more obstacles to collecting this data. The Sugar Hill Police Department charged $133 in fees, while other towns, like Allenstown, emailed documents free of charge.

Communities like Portsmouth and Keene have policies that forbid emailing 91-A records, requiring individuals to make in-person visits or pay for copies and mailing costs.

Keene requested payment to copy 25 pages of records and mail a DVD containing electronic copies of those records – or an in-person inspection. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that policies like Keene’s, which prohibits city staff from sending public records, do not violate the law.

Keene Deputy City Clerk William Dow said that if citizens request documents from the Clerk’s Office informally, instead of by filing a 91-A request, Dow will just email the documents to the curious resident. Because of his city’s 91-A policy, he encourages people to ask for records outside the formal Right to Know process.

“I try to convince people not to ask that way,” Dow said. “I have the discretion to just give it to you.”

While many departments were slow to respond or provided incomplete responses, others made the documents easy to use, even collating different records into a more accessible format.

Manchester responded to the request within a few days and ultimately provided yearly budgets dating back to 2000, annual hiring data going back to 2002, and demographic information from 2020. 

Concord also responded within the five-day window and sent records a month later containing demographic historical information for officers. In lieu of including records on police spending and staffing, Director of Human Resources Jennifer Johnston pointed to the city’s annual budget documents.

The New Hampshire State Police initially rejected a request for records that contained the number of officers employed by the agency but ultimately provided a tally of the number of sworn person nel between 1999 and 2021 last month.

“This information is being provided outside of 91-A, since we voluntarily hand-counted various records to produce these figures, even though 91-A didn’t require that we do that,” Department of Safety Senior Staff Counsel David Hilts wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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