Where Does Police Reform Stand In N.H.?
There’s been a lot of public debate over police reform this past year, with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and many New Hampshire lawmakers vowing to make it a priority. But some advocates for police reform say the results from this legislative session did not match the rhetoric.
Last summer, Sununu put together a commission on police accountability and transparency — known as the LEACT commission — in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and protests across the state over racial injustice in New Hampshire.
After two months of study, the commission released almost 50 recommendations for statewide police reform, and Sununu signed an executive order in support. Those recommendations ranged from training and data collection requirements to how the state should handle police misconduct.
Many of the proposals were carried out through that executive order or by state agencies like the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, which oversees the state’s police academy and licensing for officers. That agency increased the required number of training hours for police officers on topics like implicit bias and de-escalation.
Other proposals needed approval by the legislature, and lawmakers passed at least six this session. The governor has not signed all of those into law yet, although he has expressed support.
This table shows how proposals for police reform fared in the New Hampshire legislature during the 2021 Session.
The most comprehensive bill introduced was SB 96, or the LEACT omnibus bill. It seemed to have strong bipartisan support, with the governor backing the commission’s recommendations and both Republicans and Democrats sponsoring the bill.
But by the time it passed both the House and Senate, lawmakers had stripped key parts of the bill, including a provision that would require local police departments to collect demographic data, including race, for all traffic stops. The bill will establish a study committee instead.
This led to pushback from LEACT commission members such as Joseph Lascaze, who said they already spent time studying whether this data should be collected. Lascaze is a social-justice organizer with the ACLU of New Hampshire. He told NHPR in May that many legislators looked to their local police chiefs for guidance, instead of the commission.
“We have decision makers who don’t relate to the concerns that were raised,” Lascaze said. “I think they just don’t understand. It’s not in their background. It’s not in their communities that they live in.”
A separate bill passed by the legislature this session would open police disciplinary hearings to the public. It would also help make the so-called “Laurie list”, which includes New Hampshire officers with credibility issues, public.
Meanwhile, several legislative hearings this session resulted in tense moments between lawmakers and grassroots organizers who testified in support of police reform.
Ronelle Tshiela, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester and a member of the LEACT commission, says there were many times when advocates for police reform were disrespected by members of the legislature.
“We left a lot of those hearings hanging our heads because we were so let down by what was going on this legislative session,” Tshiela said. “We expected to be met with some sort of respect after the work that we had done in the state of New Hampshire the past year.”
The commission may reconvene at some point, now that the legislative session has wrapped, to assess what progress has been made on their recommendations. Tshiela says if they meet again, she hopes other members will be open to exploring more progressive reforms like ending qualified immunity for police.
“A lot of times I would make recommendations around the type I things that I felt my community members would have wanted and felt my community members thought needed to be addressed, and I was met with a lot of pushback from the law enforcement members of the commission,” Tshiela said.
Grassroots organizations including local Black Lives Matter chaptersled the effort toward police reform last summer, even before the LEACT commission was formed by the governor. Tshiela and other grassroots organizers are not only concerned with reform on the state level, but they’re putting a lot of their energy into making change in their local communities.
One of these local efforts has been the movement to defund the police. Tshiela says the same people who were first pushing for defunding the police a year ago are the ones leading the effort now.
More people have been showing up to testify at budget hearings across the state in cities such as Manchester, Keene and Portsmouth, demanding local officials divest funds from local police departments and put that money into more social programs.
But in Manchester, the state’s largest city, the local government increased funding for police. The budget included a federal grant for hiring 10 more police officers and establishing two new substations.
At a march along Elm Street last month, protestor Anthony Harris criticized city officials and called community members to action.
“This budget is not for the people,” Harris said. “So we need you to come out. Show up. Let your voice be heard.”
What other questions do you have about police reform in New Hampshire? We want to talk with you about future stories. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and thoughts.
Editor's note, 7/9/21: The table was corrected to reflect that almost every bill in the N.H. legislature makes it to the House or Senate floor for a vote, whether the bills pass through the committee or not.