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Judge Orders Police Decertification Hearings Be Made Public, With Limited Exceptions

Police car
Dan Tuohy/NHPR

Law enforcement officers in the state facing possible suspension or loss of certification will no longer automatically have their disciplinary hearings behind closed doors if requested, a result of an order released Thursday by a superior court judge.

The judge’s decision arrived on the same day New Hampshire House lawmakers gave the greenlight to related legislation that opens up disciplinary hearings held by the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council to public view.

The lawsuit was filed by the Union Leader in November 2020 over the disciplinary proceedings of two police officers: former Manchester detective Aaron Brown, and Ossipee officer Justin Swift.

The newspaper alleged the Council’s practice of shielding hearings and certain records from public view, if requested by the officer, was a violation of the state’s Right to Know law. 

In a 27-page order, Judge Andrew Schulman agreed that the Council should no longer automatically exempt the public from reading materials or viewing disciplinary proceedings. 

“The public interest in police officer decertification hearings, at least when such hearings are grounded on misconduct, is significant,” wrote Schulman. 

However, the order does not create a blanket requirement that all disciplinary proceedings be made public. Instead, Schulman is following precedent set by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 2020 that government bodies should balance the public’s interest against the privacy interests of the law enforcement officers, adding that “non-public final decertification hearings should be the exception rather than the rule.” 

The Attorney General’s office, which represented the Council in the case, is still reviewing the decision, and hasn’t said if it will appeal. 

UnderHouse Bill 471, the Council would be required to hold public proceedings unless there is a “compelling interest” to shield any information from public view. The measure also includes language that reforms how the state maintains and publicizes a long-secret list of police officers with credibility issues, known as the ‘Laurie list.’

Gov. Chris Sununu is expected to sign the bill into law. 

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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