N.H. to launch new accreditation process for police departments
The opportunity exists, but few New Hampshire police departments have taken it. Despite the existence of a national program to review standards and certify police departments – the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies – only 17 police departments in the Granite State are currently accredited.
This year, state police officials are attempting to provide an alternative. The Executive Council approved $100,000 in federal funding this month to help create a state-run accreditation program for New Hampshire police departments. With a new green light, state police officials are working to design its criteria.
The money, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, will go toward the Police Standards and Training Council, the agency that oversees training and disciplining police officers across the state. The council is partnering with the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police to assemble standards that will eventually be used to review and approve individual police departments.
“The unfortunate truth is that there’s a tremendous number of obstacles related to smaller police agencies being able to meet national accreditation standards, simply because they have limited resources in terms of facilities, or equipment, or things like that,” said John Scippa, the council’s director.
Police chiefs say the new program could help increase the number of New Hampshire departments that participate in an accreditation program. Creating a state-administered accreditation path will allow the council to lower the entry costs for departments, many of whom have balked at annual fees in the national program, which can exceed $8,000 per department, police representatives say.
And for some, the program carries urgency. After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in early 2020, widespread demonstrations calling for police reform prompted the formation of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency, also known as LEACT, a state panel of law enforcement and civil rights advocates that recommended a broad list of changes to policing law.
Those conversations helped create the impetus for a statewide accreditation program, police leaders say.
“We really saw a push for this following the incidents in Minneapolis and other areas of the country,” said Hollis Police Chief Joseph Hoebeke, the president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. “The problem is, it is cost prohibitive and some of the standards are extremely difficult for smaller agencies that may lack the resources.”
Hoebeke said that some of the areas of concern raised during the LEACT review could be incorporated into the standards for accreditation. Other areas the accreditation could cover include evidence collection standards, fiscal management, record-keeping, and officer conduct.
The funding will help the council hire a part-time coordinator, who will “provide PSTC personnel with guidance on policy, development, best practice, and assistance throughout the accreditation process,” according to an informational item provided to the Executive Council by the Department of Justice. The money will also allow the council to provide training and auditing for individual departments looking to become certified.
The New Hampshire-run accreditation will likely have fewer requirements than the national standard, according to officials, particularly when it comes to physical space requirements.
Because the national standards mandate the existence of specific facilities, many small departments in the state – whose offices might be adjoined to a town hall or limited – can’t qualify. Instead, the New Hampshire standards will be focused more on departments’ policies, Scippa said.
“A lot of very small police departments in New Hampshire don’t even have a police station,” Scippa said. “They may have offices attached to the town hall, or their facility is standalone, but it just cannot meet the requirements set forth in a national accreditation process.”
The goal, Scippa added, is to provide departments with a state-supported roadmap to keeping policies up to date and following best practices.
It is unclear how many New Hampshire departments will take part in the statewide certification process, which will be voluntary. But Scippa and Hoebeke argue that many might see it in their best interest.
Becoming accredited could provide guidance to police chiefs and force them to establish clarity, Scippa noted. It could help to eliminate outdated practices, and bring officers and their superiors into sync.
Certification can also provide concrete benefits, officials argue. Departments that receive the state certification could see lower insurance rates and become less susceptible to lawsuits.
And the process could help certain chiefs build trust with the public at large, Hoebeke said.
“You’d like to think that that sends a message to the community that they serve: Our chief really does want to do the very best for us,” Scippa said.
“Agencies are going to be able to choose whether or not they want to do it,” Hoebeke added. “But if I’m a progressive-minded chief, I’m saying, ‘What’s the harm?’”
The creation of the program is still in the early stages. The council is currently working with “subject matter experts” to begin creating the criteria for the accreditation process. Eventually, the council will devise a commission of “stakeholders,” consisting of law enforcement representatives who can review applications, Scippa said.
Scippa said he was unsure whether the program would be up and running in the coming months.
As they tinker with the policy, one campaign in particular has caught the attention of New Hampshire police leaders: “8 Can’t Wait.” The national effort lays out eight reforms police departments should enact immediately, including a ban on chokeholds; a ban on firing on moving vehicles; a requirement that officers de-escalate before using force; mandates on officers to warn before firing a weapon, to exhaust alternative approaches before doing so, and to intervene when other officers use excessive force; and to require comprehensive reporting for all uses of a firearm, including instances where one is pointed at civilians.
One of those provisions – the ban on chokeholds – was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu in 2020. And Hoebeke argued that many police departments already follow the other recommended reforms. But he said that the campaign provided a potential guide for the types of policies that might be mandated for police departments seeking certification.
Whatever the accreditation criteria become, the council is attempting to make them nimble and applicable, Scippa said.
“There are certain universal pieces of a procedure that should exist,” he said. “Some agencies have tasers; other other agencies do not have tasers. Some agencies carry pepper spray; other agencies do not carry pepper spray. But those devices are covered under the use-of-force policy of an agency.”
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