We'd like to think that our local law enforcement agencies are above reproach. We want to believe that the men and women on the police forces that keep us safe are professional, truthful and bastions of integrity.
But the state's law enforcement apparatus has become so shrouded in secrecy that we don't really know for sure which departments to hold up as shining examples of professionalism.
Recent stories in The Daily Sun about internal strife within the Belknap County Sheriff's Department provide a helpful example of how opaque law enforcement operations have become in New Hampshire, and why that lack of transparency serves the interests of neither law enforcement nor the public.
Former Chief Deputy David Perkins endured three internal investigations and spent five months on paid administrative leave before putting in for retirement earlier this month. Perkins, through his lawyer, claimed he was the target of harassment and retaliation by Sheriff Mike Moyer, who disputed Perkins' characterization.
Where the truth lies is hard to discern. Multiple requests to the county seeking documents that might shed light on the matter have been rejected. Belknap County may have the most upstanding sheriff's department in the state, but without more information it's impossible to say for sure.
That kind of secrecy undermines public confidence in law enforcement and makes it all but impossible for taxpayers to hold public agencies and officials accountable.
It is good news, then, that Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday created a commission that has the potential to foster greater public confidence in the state's law enforcement community.
The New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement, Accountability, Community and Transparency is charged with coming up with recommendations to “enhance transparency, accountability and community relations in law enforcement.”
The commission will examine police training and policies, procedures related to the reporting, investigation and punishment of police misconduct, and the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
It includes representatives from the Department of Justice, the Department of Safety, the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, the New Hampshire Police Association, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, and the state judiciary.
It is vital that those powerful law enforcement entities be part of the conversation about how policing should be taught, practiced and evaluated. But it's even more important that those who represent people on the receiving end of police services are also on the commission: the executive director of the New Hampshire Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; a representative from the New Hampshire ACLU; the head of the state Commission on Human Rights; the Manchester NAACP; and the Black Lives Matter movement in Manchester.
The committee will be chaired by the state's attorney general, who heads an office that, historically anyway, has sometimes been seen as largely acquiescent to law enforcement interests and something less than a champion of transparency.
Attorney General Gordon McDonald has tried to bring about change in those areas. He added an investigator to the budget to handle officer-involved shootings, opened up the process by which findings in those cases are reported, and brought in a highly responsive public information officer.
Still, when a judge last year ruled that the state's so-called Laurie List is not exempt from the Right to Know Law, the AG's office appealed to the Supreme Court to keep secret the names of officers who may have credibility issues that prosecutors are required to share with defense lawyers during pretrial proceedings. The case awaits the court's adjudication.
There is a necessarily close relationship between prosecutors and police that works well much of the time, but that relationship feeds the appearance of a conflict of interest when the AG's office is called upon to investigate an officer-involved shooting or alleged police misconduct. It's an arrangement that may do a disservice to both sides, and the commission would be wise to address that systemic conflict and recommend alternatives.
Law enforcement in New Hampshire has long wielded enormous power in a system with little public accountability built into it, so it was significant when Sununu said Tuesday that he favors making public the names of officers who have confirmed cases of misconduct on their record. The governor's position recognizes that the path to greater public confidence in law enforcement requires more transparency.
Changes in the law that increase the ability of people to know what their law enforcement agencies are up to is our best bet for enhancing the way residents view police.
Wasting that chance would serve neither the public interest nor those of the agencies and officers who strive to hold themselves to the highest possible standards.