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Who Should Be In Charge Of Investigating Police Misconduct In New Hampshire?

Police line in Canada.
Police line in Canada.

Most investigations into police misconduct are handled at the local level in New Hampshire.

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If someone files a complaint against an officer or department, often their own police chief is the one looking into it. But a new legislative committee is exploring whether the state should take a more uniform approach in investigating police misconduct.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley talked with Joseph Lascaze, an organizer for the ACLU of New Hampshire about it. He’s serving on that legislative committee.

Takeaways:

  • Lascaze says there’s no consistency in how municipalities define misconduct. The state does not require local police departments to have a written internal affairs investigation policy.
  • Lascaze says as an organizer, he’s worked with people who don’t feel comfortable reporting complaints of misconduct against a police officer or department because they don’t trust the department will take their claims seriously.
  • The LEACT commission, a statewide group tasked with studying police accountability and transparency, recommended last year that the state create an independent agency to investigate complaints of police misconduct.
  • This new legislative committee is studying how the state could implement that LEACT recommendation.
  • There are tensions within this legislative committee about how much local police departments should be involved in these investigations into misconduct.

Transcript:

(Editor’s note: This transcript is edited lightly for clarity.)

Rick Ganley: So what have you learned from your work as an organizer about issues with how police misconduct is actually investigated in New Hampshire, how it actually works? What have you heard from people about their experiences when they're trying to report a complaint against an officer or a department?

Joseph Lascaze: In the two years that I've been doing this, I've heard numerous different accounts or stories, some that I've even worked on directly where, an individual, one, they don't feel comfortable launching a complaint at the department where misconduct allegedly occurred. So, you know, if a person in the community is subject to a situation or occurrence where they feel that their civil liberties have been violated, a lot of times, they're reaching out to us trying to figure out how to go about it because they do not feel comfortable reaching out to that department, nor do they have faith that if they reach out to that department, there's going to be an objective investigation that's done. That's one thing that I've learned.

Another thing that I've also learned about this is that it is not a requirement of the state for all police departments to have an internal affairs investigation policy. And I think that that is also another shocking discovery, I should say, that I came across. Because you would figure that with over 200 police departments in this state that they would have a uniform approach or a process that could be clearly stated, written somewhere that anyone could go find about how internal investigations are done into misconduct. And we're looking to make sure that those gaps are closed.

Rick Ganley: So, Joseph, this legislative committee was formed based on a recommendation from another group, the LEACT commission, of which you were also a member. The LEACT commission was tasked with improving police accountability and transparency in New Hampshire, and they recommended the state create an independent group to look into police misconduct. Joseph, how would you ideally like to see this through? What could this independent entity look like? Who would be on it? How would you ensure that the group had, you know, appropriate oversight and power? What's the construct?

Joseph Lascaze: You know, if I had a magic wand and I could wave it and this agency would disappear, this agency would be exactly what LEACT had intended it to be: neutral and independent. This would be a standalone agency. It wouldn't be attached to any other law enforcement agencies in the state, and the members would be comprised of community members, as well as law enforcement, to be able to look at instances of misconduct, to be able to field these complaints directly from the community.

They would have the ability to make a recommendation as to what should occur based on their findings. And this body would do the investigation, along with the police departments and Police Standards and Training Council, so that all parties involved knew that there was an objective process that occurred and that whatever the findings were, were made through a neutral and independent lens and the appropriate actions would be taken.

Rick Ganley: But this would be a statewide entity that would have authority in all departments.

Joseph Lascaze: Yes, they would have authority to investigate all instances of law enforcement misconduct. So that would mean sheriffs, state troopers, local departments, correctional officers, anyone who is certified law enforcement through Police Standards and Training Council would fall under their jurisdiction.

Rick Ganley: Now I know skeptics of this are saying that they don't want to create a whole new agency here. They'd rather create a new body that's independent from police, but is just overseeing existing internal investigations. They argue that investigations of misconduct should really stay within local control. Can you tell me more about what you're hearing from other committee members that might be opposed to what you're talking about?

Joseph Lascaze: I'm assuming that everyone on this commission believes that all instances should be investigated. What's happening, though, is the issue of money and local control gets brought up, and that is something that I personally take issue with because I do not think that a reform or a benefit to the community or state should be contingent upon the amount of money that we can come up with. I don't see it that way personally, and we're working with everyone to try to resolve this issue of whether or not we create a new agency. Or if it is going to be attached to an existing agency, how would that be rolled out?

Rick Ganley: And the commission is supposed to be putting a report out by November with findings?

Joseph Lascaze: Yes. So we have until Nov. 1 to put out these findings. So over the next few weeks, we're really going to be tackling the definitions of misconduct coming to a consensus on that, coming to a consensus on the authority itself of this oversight committee. So, if this oversight committee gets established and they're tasked with investigating instances of law enforcement misconduct, well, what exactly is their authority when they come to a finding? So getting all of that ironed out before Nov. 1 is really what our priorities are.