After three years of litigation, a rewrite of state law and hundreds of hours of work by lawyers, New Hampshire citizens are starting to learn the names of problem police officers.
But outside of the agency where they worked, the date of their transgression and the briefest of explanations — “truthfulness” or “criminal conduct,” for example — the public knows nothing about what landed most of the officers on the Laurie list.
Civil liberties activists say that recent rulings by the New Hampshire Supreme Court and trial courts provide citizens with the ability to obtain details of police misconduct. In their mind, it should be as simple as filing a Right-to-Know request with the local police department.
“Is it easy? It should be easy,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU-New Hampshire. “We think, frankly, the law is already clear in New Hampshire.”
But a key New Hampshire police official said he would be reluctant to release detailed information about police misconduct that is cached in internal investigations and disciplinary actions.
Hollis Police Chief Joseph Hoebeke, president of the New Hampshire Association of Police Chiefs, said he would likely deny such a request and let a judge decide.
“I’ll be frank with you, I’m for transparency, but I need to protect myself and the town from being sued for information I release that I shouldn’t have,” Hoebeke said.
He said the vast majority of the police officers on the Laurie list either were fired or quietly retired after landing on the list.
The list, formally known as the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, contains the names of more than 200 police officers whose credibility could be an issue if they were to ever testify at a trial.
In an historic move, New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella two weeks ago released the names of 80 officers on the list.
In the coming months he’s expected to release more names in compliance with a law passed last year that lays out a procedure for unveiling the names.
Last week, the New Hampshire Union Leader filed Right-to-Know requests with the Nashua Police Department and New Hampshire State Police for records about the misconduct of four officers on the list. State police said they will need 30 days to locate the records, and then more time to determine what can be released.
Rulings for openness
The ACLU’s Bissonnette said Supreme Court decisions over the past two years make it clear that police departments should disclose records about police misconduct upon request. They include:
In May 2020, the New Hampshire Supreme Court threw out a 27-year-old precedent and said information about police misconduct in personnel files would be subject to the Right-to-Know Law in most cases.
One month later, the Supreme Court said Keene State College students deserved access to police records of misconduct.
Last year, a judge urged the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council to keep most hearings about officer decertification open to the public. He also has ordered records released regarding misconduct of a former Manchester police officer. Attorney General Formella is weighing whether to appeal the order.
The Supreme Court is considering the appeal of a trial court decision to release an investigation into alleged misconduct of a former Canaan police officer. The investigation cleared Samuel Provenza, who is now a state police trooper, of any wrongdoing, but the Valley News newspaper still wants access to the investigation. Provenza is trying to block the release. The case already has been argued before the New Hampshire Supreme Court and a decision is pending.
Those cases do not deal with the Laurie list. The Laurie list will generate its own set of cases because state law gives officers on the list the ability to challenge the disclosure of their names in sealed court proceedings.
Bissonnette stressed that judges considering disclosure cases must weigh two competing issues — an officer’s desire for privacy vs. the public’s ability to know both what misconduct took place and whether police brass addressed it appropriately.
Chiefs profess support
When cases make it to the Supreme Court, justices generally have ruled that the information should be released, then returned it to the trial court level with instruction for the judges to decide what to release.
In the Keene State case, Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff said reports of police misconduct should be released except for the identity of victims and any disciplinary action taken against the officer.
In his decision, Ruoff wrote that police are vested with considerable power and authority, in contrast with state library employees. Such power includes authorized use of deadly force and delivering critical testimony as witnesses in criminal cases.
“The Court cannot discern any privacy interest vested in an officer against whom a citizen has filed a complaint,” he wrote.
When the Laurie list was released, the Police Chiefs Association issued a statement that said it worked on the law that made the list public, and chiefs will continue to support the highest levels of transparency and accountability.
But Hoebeke said state statutes still protect some files, and he must weigh the best interest of the town before releasing any. In the meantime, he thinks the Laurie list provides an important message.
“We want it to be known that chiefs are doing the right thing. We’re holding people accountable,” he said.