Each month, the state’s Police Standards and Training Council holds certification hearings for officers charged with offenses ranging from drunken driving and domestic violence to lying on official reports and abusing prisoners.
The 13-member board of police chiefs, prosecutors, judges and members of the public decides whether to suspend officers’ certifications, revoke them entirely and in some cases, whether to reinstate officers it previously sanctioned.
Almost all of those hearings take place behind closed doors, but records released to the New Hampshire Union Leader through a Right-to-Know request offer a rare, if limited, look into the types of offenses that land police and correctional officers in trouble and how much deference is given to individual departments in determining proper discipline.
The PSTC declined to provide recordings of the closed-door hearings to the Union Leader, citing their potential to damage officers’ reputations, but it did release audio of the votes taken in public session and copies of the notices sent to officers listing the charges against them.
Officers arrested for DUI or domestic violence accounted for 11 of the 33 hearings since 2017 for which the Union Leader could determine the specific allegation of wrongdoing. An additional 10 cases involved departments hiring officers who had previously lost their certification or who needed waivers due to information uncovered during their background checks, often related to the consumption or sale of drugs when they were younger.
In some cases, the hearing records suggest that the PSTC is reticent to second guess disciplinary or hiring decisions made by local departments.
Over the last three years, the council didn’t revoke any certifications in DUI cases. Its sanctions ranged from taking no action beyond the local department’s to issuing 60-day suspensions. But in an interview, Sunapee Police Chief David Cahill, who chairs the PSTC, said he would fire any of his own officers if they were found guilty of driving drunk.
“How could you ever keep somebody like that in your employment?” he said, while acknowledging the need for local control.
“We are looking at their license, their certification,” Cahill said. “The (local) agency is looking at their integrity, their credibility, and their personality or background. It’s not up to us to decide if that person who is hired is fit or not fit.”
That local control manifests in different ways.
In one case from 2017, former Bow officer Christopher Lind was found to have given inappropriate study materials to a recruit in the academy, according to audio of a PSTC hearing. As a result, he no longer works for the department.
“My feeling for that is, if you’re doing that in the academy, what are you going to do out on the road?” Bow Police Chief Margaret Lougee said. “What are you going to do when others aren’t watching?”
In a very different case from 2016, the Pittsfield Police Department chose to continue employing part-time officer Robert Gauthier even after he was charged with three felonies — criminal threatening, witness tampering, and falsifying evidence — stemming from an incident at his other job, with the Department of Corrections, in which he cut an inmate’s shirt with a knife.
The PSTC suspended Gauthier’s certification until the resolution of his criminal case, according to the council’s records. He resigned from the DOC and eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in January 2016.
A month later, then-Pittsfield Chief Jeffrey Cain and officer Brandon Walker testified before the PSTC as character witnesses for Gauthier. The council voted unanimously not to extend his suspension.
The next year, Walker was back before the PSTC after being charged with domestic violence, assault and stalking. He surrendered his police certification, but was arrested again Nov. 30 for impersonating a police officer.
Gauthier and Cain have also since left the Pittsfield department.
“The police standards and training council is not the internal affairs division for all law enforcement in New Hampshire,” Cahill said. “There is going to be some local control left to the police departments and I believe, for the most part, that agencies are holding people accountable whether or not the people in the community like the outcome.”
Unlike other New England states, New Hampshire shields virtually all information about officers’ disciplinary records from public view.
Several high-profile examples of misconduct in recent months have brought more attention, however, to the question of what right the public has to information about officers accused of wrongdoing.
Salem’s police chief resigned in December and the town’s deputy chief is under criminal investigation following the release of a redacted audit report that said the department was ignoring citizen complaints and taking a relaxed approach to internal affairs investigations.
In Manchester, prosecutors recently announced that they would not file criminal charges against two detectives the city fired last year amid allegations that they coerced women into sex.
The accusations against the detectives only became public as a result of a civil lawsuit.
Not even prosecutors were allowed to look at the internal affairs reports.
Meanwhile, the ACLU of New Hampshire, the Union Leader, and several other news outlets are suing the state for access to the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, a list of around 170 police officers who have been red-flagged by their departments for credibility issues that must be disclosed to defense attorneys.
“The public is completely shut out from any oversight. That is the fundamental problem, I think, with all of this,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. “Keeping information secret, especially when it comes to police behavior, only increases police distrust.”
The New Hampshire Police Association is opposed to the state releasing the EES because it believes officers aren’t allotted due process, but the association’s immediate past-president, Londonderry police Lt. Patrick Cheetham, agrees that the public should have access to information about officers proven to have engaged in misconduct.
“If somebody has done something egregious then the public should know about it,” Cheetham said. “We should be held to a higher standard, just like elected officials. But police officers still have the same constitutional rights (to due process) as bus drivers, or lawyers or doctors.”
He said the PSTC hearings are an example of a fair disciplinary process.
The NHPA has even broached the idea of creating a similar board to handle EES cases that would be under the umbrella of the PSTC but composed of different members.
Cahill, however, said the PSTC does “not want any part of the EES.”