Kenyon: Hanover stalls on police records request

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 04-19-2024 7:35 PM

Modified: 04-24-2024 9:54 AM


The town of Hanover’s website says its police reports are available to the public, but the chief “reserves the right to control the release of all department records.”

That’s not the way the New Hampshire Right-to-Know law is intended to work.

Under the law, the public is entitled access to arrest records and incident reports in a timely fashion without having to ask a police chief — or any other town official — for permission.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has made clear in recent years that public disclosure of police actions, such as taking someone’s freedom away by placing them under arrest, is of paramount importance. The public, says the state’s highest court, has a right to know “what its government is up to.”

Which brings me to the case of the two Dartmouth student-activists who were arrested — apparently on the wishes of college President Sian Leah Beilock and her top lieutenants — back in late October.

Nearly six months later, Hanover police have told the public very little about what happened the night freshman Kevin Engel and junior Roan Wade refused to leave a camping tent they’d pitched on the lawn outside Beilock’s office.

The students and their supporters say they were peacefully trying to raise awareness about the toll the Israel-Hamas war is taking on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They’d only occupied the tent for about six hours before Hanover cops hauled them off in handcuffs under cover of darkness.

Now it’s the public that remains in the dark.

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Under the Right-to-Know law, the Valley News began requesting the police reports in late December.

On Jan. 8, Matthew Burrows, of Gallagher, Callahan and Gartrell in Concord, informed me via email that in “light of the ongoing prosecution” of the two students the police records are “exempt from disclosure.”

The Valley News, through its longtime attorney, Bill Chapman, of Orr and Reno in Concord, maintains that arrest records are “governmental records” as defined under the Right-to-Know law and “subject to disclosure.”

On Thursday, a hearing was held in Grafton County Superior Court on whether to make the reports public. It’s now up to Judge Steven Houran to decide.

I can’t believe a simple, straightforward request for police information has turned into a court matter.

In other New Hampshire communities, police departments routinely release arrest and incident reports to the media upon request.

After Hanover denied the Valley News’ public records request, I asked the town to reconsider, which is allowed under state law. Shortly thereafter, the town punted. On Jan. 22, Hanover asked the county if the town is “required by law to release public records” of the students’ arrests while the case is ongoing.

“The law is pretty clear,” said attorney Elizabeth Velez, of Orr and Reno, in arguing the paper’s case Thursday. “There’s no evidence that release of the records would interfere with the prosecution.”

Engel and Wade pleaded not guilty to criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, in Lebanon District Court. Kira Kelley, a Minnesota attorney who grew up in Hartland and graduated from Hanover High School, is representing them pro bono.

In “looking for clarity in the law,” Burrows said at the hearing, the town decided to “put it before a judge.”

Hanover is stalling. By going to court, town officials buy time for themselves and the Beilock administration in hopes of finding a graceful escape from their self-inflicted legal quagmire.

For months, the college and Hanover prosecutor Mariana Pastore have been working in tandem. Pastore hasn’t entered the police reports in the court file, which would have made them public record. She also filed paperwork in support of Dartmouth’s legal maneuvering to keep Beilock off the witness stand.

In February, Dartmouth brought in Manchester lawyer Michael Delaney, a former New Hampshire attorney general, to fight a subpoena issued to Beilock. Judge Michael C. Mace denied the college’s motions, meaning Beilock is still on the hook to testify.

The longer the arrest reports are hidden from public view, the longer Beilock and her team can avoid public scrutiny over why the students’ protest became — and remains — a criminal matter.

Within hours of the arrests, Beilock had emailed the Dartmouth community that Engel and Wade had threatened “physical action.” Last month, Dean of the College Scott Brown acknowledged in a campus-wide email that “after discussions with these students, we now understand that they are consistently nonviolent activists.”

Or to put what happened on that October night another way: Dartmouth cried wolf and Hanover police went along with it.

On Thursday, Burrows told the judge that Hanover officials are “not suggesting the Valley News will never get these records. It’s the timing of it.”

Velez, the paper’s attorney, reminded the judge there’s no exemption to the Right-to-Know law that says a “police department can wait to release records pending the final resolution of a criminal case.”

For good reason.

The first day of the students’ trial was Feb. 26. Due to a lack of a full-time judge in the Lebanon court, the trial isn’t likely to resume before June, maybe even July.

If found guilty, the students could appeal to the state Supreme Court, meaning it could take a year or more for the case to wrap up.

I don’t blame Police Chief Charlie Dennis, who attended Thursday’s hearing, solely for the stonewalling. His boss — Town Manager Alex Torpey — and the Selectboard should have stepped in months ago.

But it’s no suprise they didn’t. Torpey’s idea of good government means building more bike lanes. The Selectboard is little more than a garden club in a company town.

In Hanover’s world, the public’s right-to-know is an afterthought, if it’s given any thought at all.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.