Police departments vary on transparency, according to responses to right-to-know requests

Four days after Sandwich Police Department Chief Shawn Varney received a right-to-know request from New Hampshire for 20 years of police records, the city emailed back a 63-page attachment containing information on agent budgets, hiring, and demographics dating back to 2000.

Ossipee, a town 19 miles to the southeast, received an identical request at the same time last April. Almost a year later, Police Chief Tony Castaldo continues to ignore the law and has failed to respond.

Over a 10-month period, Ossipee received nearly two dozen copies of a right-to-know request requesting the annual police list and employment records. In addition to the letters, the city received several emails and phone calls. Ossipee, which has twice the population and budget of Sandwich and a 10-member police department, has yet to acknowledge the request through a return email, phone call or written letter. . By law, they had five days to respond.

Finally reached by telephone, an administrative assistant confirmed that he had ignored the request because it was confusing.

These two cities’ responses to the same request illustrate how citizens seeking access to government records under RSA 91-A, New Hampshire’s right-to-know law, may encounter varying levels of access depending on the agency that holds these documents.

Following statewide efforts to increase police transparency, the Tuning Monitor partnered with Granite State News Collaborative last year to collect data from all state law enforcement agencies to document changes in police personnel over the past 20 years.

The idea was to track the growth and diversity of New Hampshire’s police force over two decades.

More than 240 departments across the state have received requests for information on officer budgets, hiring and demographics dating back to 2000. Stories based on the analysis of this data will be released in the coming months. Readers can view all of these requests and departmental responses on MuckRock News, a nonprofit site that helps streamline and track public records requests.

Refusal and radio silence

Some towns, such as Weare, have outright rejected the applications they received.

Weare Police Department administrative assistant Emily Dauphinais wrote in a response letter that the information was exempt from the right to know law because the request would require the department to create new records, which n is not required by law. Calls and emails attempting to clarify which part of the application required new registrations were not returned.

Unlike Weare, other towns have published current and past service listings, payroll records, and hiring records, in addition to years of budget records.

Under the Right to Know Act, a government agency has five business days to respond to requests for public records. However, many police departments required repeated reminders before acknowledging the request, which was sent through MuckRock to keep the process open and transparent to the public.

A dozen departments never acknowledged the requests and did not send records, even after several follow-up emails and phone calls. These departments are in the towns of Hill, Deerfield, Fitzwilliam, Ossipee, Northumberland, Plainfield, Stark, South Hampton, Goshen, Freedom, Stratford and Atkinson. Some departments received the requests at different times than others, but all the requests were sent more than five months ago.

Some requests were lying around on old fax machines or were sent to email addresses of departmental websites that were no longer in use, while other departments said they ignored requests due to confusion over the right-to-know law or cybersecurity concerns.

Ossippee Police Department Secretary Jennifer Benedict confirmed when reached by phone that she had received multiple copies of the request, first sent in April. However, since the request included information from MuckRock about an option to upload responsive documents online as well as send them by mail or email, the department decided to ignore the letter.

“It seemed really sketchy,” Benedict said.

Initially, the Plaistow Police Department also denied the request, saying the requested information was exempt from disclosure under the law. However, the department sent out responsive material after being told this story would be published. “There was a lot of confusion about it,” said police department secretary Brian MacHarrie.

The small town of Canaan in Grafton County ignored emailed requests for months due to an unwillingness to spend staff time searching for records. When reached by phone in October, city administrator Mike Samson said he had no intention of hiding the information, but lacked the manpower to search. employment records dating back 20 years.

” It is a small city. I can’t go back to 2000, and if you want to go to court, I’m happy to explain to the judge that I just don’t have the staff to do it,” Samson said. In January, he provided the To watch with limited information from a lite version of the phone application.

At the discretion of the agencies

Agencies can choose to prioritize in-person document inspection or charge a fee for hard copies, which has created more barriers to collecting this data. The Sugar Hill Police Department charged a $133 fee, while other towns, such as Allenstown, emailed documents for free.

Communities like Portsmouth and Keene have policies that prohibit the emailing of 91-A records, requiring individuals to make in-person visits or pay for copies and postage.

Keene demanded payment to copy 25 pages of records and send a DVD containing electronic copies of those records – or an in-person inspection. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that policies like Keene’s, which prohibits city staff from sending public documents, do not violate the law.

Keene Deputy Clerk William Dow said if citizens request documents from the clerk’s office informally, instead of filing a 91-A, Dow will simply email the documents to the curious resident. Because of his city’s 91-A policy, he encourages people to request records outside of the formal right-to-know process.

“I try to convince people not to ask that way,” Dow said. “I have the discretion to give it to you.”

While many departments were slow to respond or provided incomplete responses, others made the documents easy to use, even bringing together different records in a more accessible format.

Manchester responded to the request within days and eventually provided annual budgets going back to 2000, annual hiring data going back to 2002 and demographic information from 2020.

Concord also responded within the five-day deadline and sent records a month later containing historical demographic information about the agents. Instead of including records on police spending and staffing, human resources director Jennifer Johnston pointed to the city’s annual budget documents.

New Hampshire State Police initially denied a request for records containing the number of officers employed by the agency, but eventually provided a tally of the number of people sworn in between 1999 and 2021 last month.

“This information is provided outside of 91-A, since we intentionally hand-counted various records to produce these numbers, even though 91-A did not require us to do so,” wrote senior counsel David Hilts. from the security department. an email to To watch.


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