Judge orders state officials to open most hearings into police decertification

·3 min read

Jun. 11—A New Hampshire board responsible for the decertification of problem police officers must stop its longstanding practice of giving individual officers the option to close public hearings about their misconduct, a judge ruled on Thursday.

Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman also urged that the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, a 13-member board comprising mostly law enforcement, hold most decertification hearings in public.

"The public interest in police officer decertification hearings, at least when such hearings are grounded on misconduct, is significant," Schulman wrote in a 27-page decision.

He went on to write that closed-door decertification hearings should be the exception rather than the rule.

Schulman issued his decision the same day the New Hampshire House sent legislation to Gov. Chris Sununu that would enact much of what is in the judge's order.

The judge ruled on a case brought by the New Hampshire Union Leader against the Police Standards and Training Council (PSTC) to open the hearings.

In order to work in New Hampshire, police officers must be certified by the PSTC, which sets dozens of standards. They include physical fitness, ongoing training and good moral character, which precludes criminal activity as well as excessive force, dishonesty, tampering with records, intoxication on duty, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, bribery, familiarity with known criminals and other misdeeds.

Last year, the Union Leader reported that hearings and many records regarding police certifications are not open to the public, unlike nearly all other professions that are licensed by the state.

The Union Leader filed suit to open a scheduled hearing of former Manchester police officer Aaron Brown, who was fired for making racist statements and other misconduct, and Loudon police officer Justin Swift, who was fired from an Ossipee police job over unapproved use of a police online telecommunication system.

The PSTC meets monthly, and decertification requests by a police chief are often on the agenda.

According to Schulman's order, the longstanding unwritten policy of the PSTC was to allow the officer facing decertification to decide whether to close a hearing.

"Our client is very pleased with the court's decision," said Gregory V. Sullivan, who represented the Union Leader. "Going forward it will not be the officer involved who gets to decide if the hearing will be public or non-public."

Schulman did not go as far as the Union Leader wanted; he did not mandate that every hearing be open.

But he ruled the PSTC must weigh the benefits of public disclosure against the harm of the invasion of the officer's private life. That reflects rulings last year by the state Supreme Court, which allowed for release of internal police personnel files if they shed light on misconduct.

In the order, Schulman hypothesized about cases that would not necessitate public disclosure: use of medical marijuana, a suicide attempt, an addiction to alcohol or prescription drugs. Schulman ordered the PSTC to submit undisclosed records regarding Brown and Swift to him, and he will decide what should be available to the public.

John Scippa, the director of the PSTC and New Hampshire Police Academy, said the council will work with the office of Attorney General John Formella to respond to the order.