State starts to release police certification records; initial release involves 13

·4 min read

Oct. 25—State officials slowly are releasing the names of police officers who have been fired, suspended, quit while under internal investigation or faced other disciplinary actions that have put their certification in jeopardy.

Late last month, the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council released the names of 13 officers who faced job actions over a four-month period.

The information is contained in a form police chiefs submit to the council whenever an employment action, such as a suspension or termination, takes place that could affect the certification of a police or corrections officer.

The release was in response to requests under the New Hampshire Right-to-Know law by the New Hampshire Union Leader and ACLU-New Hampshire.

Last year, the New Hampshire Union Leader raised an issue with the long-held practice that keeps police and correction officer certification records confidential. That confidentiality contrasts with public access to licensing hearings and records involving a host of professions, ranging from physicians to barbers.

Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law opening certification hearings, and a Merrimack County Superior Court judge issued a ruling favorable to release of certification records.

This month, the New England Newspaper and Press Association awarded the Union Leader the 2021 New England First Amendment Award for its efforts to report about and advance the issue.

Gregory V. Sullivan, the lawyer who represents the Union Leader, said both the state and federal Constitutions encourage public access to government proceedings and records that are not otherwise exempt by law.

"Transparency regarding records that shine the light of public scrutiny on the performance of public officials, especially those officials tasked with enforcing the laws, is essential to an informed citizenry and leads to good government," he said.

"At the end of the day, these [forms] themselves are very important for the public to have access to," said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of ACLU-NH. He said he is pleased council officials produced the information.

However, Form B, as it is known, does not tell the entire story of what occurred with the officer.

In all but one case, the council merely provided the form, which identified the officer, the department and what job action was involved.

"We're not collecting facts insomuch as we're just trying to track the change in status of the officer," said John Scippa, director of the council. "This provides a smidgen of information."

Anyone who wanted to know more would have to make requests to individual police departments. Police departments have long kept such information locked in personnel files, but two 2020 Supreme Court rulings called for the release of such information if a legitimate public interest exists.

In May, the Union Leader and ACLU made a limited request for the certification records.

The organizations limited the request for Form B notices that hinted of possible misconduct such as termination, negotiated resignation, resignation during an internal investigation, administrative leave, administrative suspension or failure to make probation.

The council initially refused, then released 33 forms that covered the period from Oct. 1, 2020, to Jan. 31. But the council blacked out the names of the officers and the departments.

The Union Leader and ACLU insisted on release of unredacted forms, and late last month the council released 13 forms that included all information except the officers' dates of birth.

Officers named in another 20 forms have been given time to consider whether to challenge the release of their names.

"We're just taking steps to make sure that if there are privacy issues a particular officer might have, that we clear them up before releasing them," Scippa said.

The council had given the 20 officers until Oct. 15 to decide. Maj. David Parenteau, head of the council's legal bureau, said some challenges are undergoing final reviews with the office of Attorney General John Formella.

They should be released shortly, he said.

Both Scippa and Bissonnette stressed that a Form B does not automatically involve misconduct. For example, a person may be disciplined or even fired for habitual tardiness, or someone may not make probation because of a personality conflict, Scippa said.

He said the public has an interest in knowing when an officer is fired for misconduct or other suspicious reports, such as an officer leaving during an internal investigation.

Officers facing potential decertification have a right to challenge the action before the 13-member council.

mhayward@unionleader.com