EDITOR’S NOTE: As a new state commission addresses policing tactics, training, and police interaction with the public it serves, we reprint today a Bow Times editorial by its editor and owner, Chuck Douglas. Atty. Douglas is a former state supreme court associate justice and former congressman for New Hampshire’s 2nd district.
THE RECENT hands-in-the-pocket, eight-minutes-long, knee-on-the-neck murder of George Floyd by Officer Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department has triggered many cries for reforms. I have had the privilege of practicing law over 50 years. I have defend police officers and I have sued them when they were well over the line. I see several changes that need to be made here in New Hampshire.
1. Police discipline files should be open to the public. Giving an officer a badge and a gun is important to protect our lives and property. But when they are found to have violated law or policy we should have access to the information so bad apples are not protected by privacy laws.
2. Officers are almost always indemnified by state and local governments if they are sued civilly for violating the Bill of Rights or using excessive force. No official or qualified immunity from a suit should ever apply in those cases because the officer’s house and assets are not put at risk when the state treasury or insurers are paying to compensate a dead or injured citizen.
3. Chokeholds or neck compression should be outlawed regardless of the circumstances. Officers have tasers, guns, batons and handcuffs, so suffocating someone should not be in their toolbox. The suspect should be alive for trial, not executed without one by a single government employee. If a suspect gets away, he can be arrested later rather than being killed for a pack of stolen cigarettes our some other misdemeanor.
Our Police Standards and Training Council, which trains and certifies both full and part-time police, should flat-out ban use of neck restraints, as should every police department. The council and police departments, when asked, say they don’t “teach” neck restraints. But that is not the same as teaching not to ever use them. The current exception for their use if “justified” or “authorized” in deadly force cases, which places officers in a tough judgment call that runs the risk of misuse. No should mean no, except for mortal self-defense cases.
4. All uniformed officers should be required to wear body cameras so the debate over what happened at a crime scene is a much shorter one. Officers who fail to activate them should lose a week’s pay for the first offense, a months pay for the second, etc. The technology exists and is affordable, so debate about body cams should be over.
5. When use of force is excessive or policies are recklessly violated, any on-scene officers who don’t try to restrain an out-of-control colleague with acute anger management issues should be just as liable as the offender for discipline. The code of silence or the fear of offending a 20-year department veteran must no longer be the standard response to bad police work.
6. Finally, defunding police departments is like throwing the baby out with the dirty bathwater. We need well-trained police to serve and protect us. The reforms described above would go a long way to restore trust. Every local government — and the state police — should review their use of force policies to emphasize de-escalation, not summary executions.