SALEM — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the Union Leader Corp. filed an opening brief at the New Hampshire Supreme Court last week, arguing for the release of a redacted audit report of the Salem Police Department.
The brief outlined new information gleaned from defamation lawsuits filed this spring by former Salem Deputy Police Chief Robert Morin, who retired on June 1 and is currently under criminal investigation by the state Attorney General’s office.
“Mr. Morin’s lawsuits highlight the compelling interest in the disclosure of the audit report,” ACLU-NH legal director Gilles Bissonnette wrote in the brief.
Bissonnette argued in the brief that the public has a compelling interest in seeing the redactions lifted because the case is not a personnel matter, as the town has argued.
“The Town’s apparent position that the police have privacy interests with respect to their official acts is concerning because it bestows upon the police special secrecy rights that those accused of crimes by the police do not enjoy,” Bissonnette wrote.
“This is the tradeoff we make as a democratic society,” Bissonnette continued. “Police officers should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens — not a lesser standard — especially given that police officers act in the name of the public, are professional witnesses funded by taxpayers, and have the unique ability to use force and deprive persons of their liberty.”
The brief identifies a number of areas in the report conducted by Kroll Inc., which was hired by the town to conduct the audit, including the behavior of an officer whose name is redacted. Bissonnette argued that the officer appears to be Morin, who referred to the documentation as defamatory statements about him in a lawsuit he brought against the town.
As previously reported by the Union Leader, details contained in another lawsuit filed by Morin against Salem resident Mary-Jo Driggers reveal that Morin is likely the officer described as “Supervisor B” in the Kroll report.
The brief details a number of allegations against Supervisor B, such as threats, harassment, unprofessional behavior and “inappropriate actions against individuals” that involve family members or friends while reporting as a member of law enforcement.
Supervisor B is also described in the audit report dismissing a complainant who was concerned about racially-motivated police actions.
The town of Salem released the redacted audit report in November 2018, and the ACLU and Union Leader filed a Right to Know lawsuit in December. In an April 5 ruling, Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Andy Schulman ordered the town to lift several redactions, but sustained a number of redactions under the “internal personnel practices” exemption in state law.
Schulman wrote in his order that a balance of the public interest in disclosure against privacy concerns of police officers strongly favors disclosure, but current state law doesn’t give him the authority to do a balancing test.
A 1993 Supreme Court decision called Union Leader Corp. v. Fenniman resulted in police internal affairs documents being defined under the “internal personnel practices” exemption in every case.
The current appeal argues that the Fenniman case resulted in a bad decision and should be overturned.
The Attorney General’s office also opened criminal probes into former Salem Police Chief Paul Donovan, Capt. Michael Wagner and Sgt. Michael Verrocchi. The AG’s office first informed the town of its investigation into Morin in January and he was placed on paid leave.