CONCORD — New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella has until next week to decide whether to challenge a judge’s decision that opens up records about the decertification efforts involving two problem police officers.
In court papers, Formella said he needs the time to decide whether to challenge a Dec. 15 order by Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman in a case brought by the New Hampshire Union Leader more than a year ago.
The newspaper wants the Police Standards and Training Council, which certifies police officers as fit for duty in New Hampshire, to release records about the potential decertification of two police officers.
Schulman had ruled against the council, according to court filings.
But a day after issuing the order, Schulman had the order sealed. He did so after lawyers for Formella said it contained information that would remain secret if they file a challenge to his order and eventually prevail.
Schulman gave them until Jan. 10.
Formella will decide on his next step as the state digests the most recent decision favoring the Union Leader, other media organizations and the ACLU-New Hampshire to force disclosure about problem police officers.
Last week, Formella’s office released the names of 80 out of more than 250 officers who appear on the “Laurie list,” a list that his office compiles of police officers with credibility issues.
The release is the first batch under a law passed last year that provides access to the list along with safeguards that allow officers to challenge the disclosure of their names.
The list contains little information about any officer’s transgression. A single word or phrase — such as “truthfulness” or “dereliction of duty” — is the only explanation given on the spreadsheet, and the dates of some transgressions are listed as unknown.
In contrast, the Police Standards and Training Council has extensive information about wrongdoings of officers that result in decertification hearings.
In November 2020, the Union Leader sued the council in Merrimack County Superior Court to access records related to the potential decertification of two officers, including former Manchester Police Officer Aaron Brown, who had sent texts with racist language from his department cellphone.
Fired by former Police Chief Nick Willard, Brown won his job back when his union brought the case to arbitration. He never returned to work and received an award amounting to $181,700 in gross payments.
In June, Schulman ruled that council hearings should be open in most cases. The judge also said he would review the Brown documents and decide what should be released publicly.
Although the Brown documents remain sealed, previous filings say they include portions of the internal investigations into Brown, and letters from Manchester police officials calling for Brown’s discipline and eventual termination.
They also include emails between former Police Chief Carlo Capano and David Parenteau, who handles legal issues for the council, about Brown.
The practices of the Police Standards and Training Council came under scrutiny as interest in police misconduct grew this decade.
In 2020, the Union Leader reported that most council hearings and accompanying documents are closed to the public, unlike nearly all other professions that are licensed by the state.
Last June, the council started holding most decertification hearings in public.
But records connected to hearings remain difficult to obtain. In October 2020, the Union Leader filed Right-to-Know requests with the council seeking access to records regarding Brown’s decertification.
Denied, the paper filed suit against the council.
The Police Standards and Training Council cites several reasons for not releasing the Brown records: Some of the allegations against Brown were never proven, and the release of other information would result in an invasion of privacy.
“The officers who are subject to the Council’s hearings maintain privacy interests in their reputation, something that is not automatically forfeited by the presence of a public interest in police misconduct, particularly when that public interest varies by hearing,” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Ramsey wrote in January 2021.
But Gregory V. Sullivan, who represents the Union Leader, disputed her statement.
“As our trial courts and the Supreme Court of New Hampshire have repeatedly found, a police officer has minimal or no privacy rights with respect to his or her performance of their official duties,” Sullivan wrote in response to Ramsey’s arguments.
In a separate matter, the council in October released the names of officers who have been fired, suspended, quit while under investigation or faced other disciplinary actions. They did so in response to a separate Right-to-Know request by the Union Leader and ACLU-New Hampshire.
Those names are available on Form Bs that police chiefs file with the council whenever one of their officers faces a job action.
The council has released the names of 17 officers.
A request for Form Gs, which chiefs file after an officer is arrested, is pending and should be released sometime in February.