Commentary: It’s time revoke law enforcement’s status as a ‘super constituent’

A police cruiser
Part of police reform has to be calling out and ending law enforcement’s “super constituent” status. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The most powerful player in electoral politics is the constituent, or so we are led to believe by every elected official ever. 

Ask a state senator or a state representative and they’ll tell you that the people they want to hear from most are their constituents. They do not specify a particular type of constituent. They want to hear from all their constituents equally. 

Well, it turns out that there is a “super constituent.” A constituent that matters more than all the rest: law enforcement. This dangerous truth is finally starting to be told in New Hampshire.

A little over a year ago, I was helping to work on two similar bills, one in the House (HB 1217) and one in the Senate (SB 470). Each would require police officers to report misconduct by a fellow officer. The bills were such a small step they barely qualified as police reform. And yet, those of us working on them knew their passage would be uphill battles because police reform was not popular. 

Before last year, we could go entire legislative sessions without seeing a single police reform bill. I wasn’t the only one shocked when the House bill sailed smoothly through its own chamber, passing on a voice vote. Then again, the New Hampshire House is generally less deferential to law enforcement. But the outlook for the Senate bill was much more bleak, with the chance of a screeching halt.

In February of last year, I met with a Democratic senator about the Senate bill. The conversation didn’t last long. I was told very quickly that this senator’s police chief opposed the bill so they couldn’t vote for it. That was the end of the discussion.

When we went into COVID-19 lockdown last year, HB 1217 and SB 470 were both doomed in the Senate because the sentiment expressed by that one senator was expressed by many. The verdict was in. Law enforcement opposed the bills, and therefore most senators couldn’t vote for them. 

That was the norm in the Senate. Police expressed opposition, no chance of passage. There were a few exceptions, but they were exceptions.

Then the world watched the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. Almost overnight, the two bills became rallying points in New Hampshire. Their proposed reform became part of our state’s response to the murder of a Black man by a white police officer. The murder of Floyd and an unprecedented groundswell of grassroots activism in support of Black Lives Matter are what it took to pass miniscule police reform in New Hampshire.

The power of law enforcement in the New Hampshire Legislature is alarming. Sit in on a hearing for any criminal legal reform bill and you are bound to see police in uniform who were there to testify, most likely against the reform. 

I’ve stopped being surprised when I see an elected official cede their decision-making authority to law enforcement. I’ve stopped being surprised when I call a legislator, particularly a state senator, to talk about a criminal legal reform bill and hear that they cannot support it because their police chief opposes it.

Think about that for a minute: An elected official cannot vote for a bill because a single person told them not to. 

Does a single teacher have that much sway? Does a single doctor? What about a Black person who is repeatedly stopped by law enforcement in this state for driving while Black? Does any other single person get to call the shots like law enforcement? Maybe, but I haven’t met that person.

There are a lot of “worst-kept secrets” in Concord, but the power law enforcement has over the New Hampshire Senate has to be in the top five. Law enforcement is the reason that it took 20 years to repeal the death penalty in this state. Law enforcement is the reason New Hampshire is the only state in New England that hasn’t legalized cannabis, despite the fact that legalization is overwhelmingly popular with Granite State voters, also known as constituents.

The New Hampshire House has repeatedly passed cannabis legalization legislation. And yet anyone who follows the politics of the New Hampshire State House is not at all surprised when such legislation repeatedly dies in the Senate.

It is not hard to decipher the reason behind law enforcement’s “super constituent” status in the state Senate: fear of political retribution; chasing the endorsement of a police union come election time; a sense that a police chief knows best to the exclusion of other stakeholders’ views; the power of police unions more broadly, etc.

Part of police reform has to be calling out and ending law enforcement’s “super constituent” status. A state senator should care as much about the perspective of someone subjected to policing as they do that of a police officer. 

Our elected officials should care as much about the experience and perspective of formerly incarcerated individuals as they do about the officers who arrested them. 

The experiences and perspectives of those subjected to policing and their families should be more important. After all, police work for the state. Caving to law enforcement is caving to the state, as opposed to listening to the people.

Another option: How about law enforcement gets on the right side of history and actually supports comprehensive police and criminal legal reform. Not just more training, but less incarceration. Not just data collection, but agreeing to ask for less money so that the state and our towns can better fund our schools and social services.

It should not take George Floyd dying on camera under the knee of a police officer to pass even the mildest police reform or to overcome the iron grip that law enforcement has over our state Senate. 

The reforms recommended by the Governor’s Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency Commission are good reforms, but even they represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of comprehensive police reform. The commission was dominated by law enforcement. It should not be surprising that many of its recommendations are not hitting the same political resistance. But let’s not kid ourselves that this represents a sea change. 

Law enforcement still opposed legislation this session regarding official immunity, sentencing reform, and establishing guardrails on the role of school resource officers. They are also seeking to reverse bail reform and add new penalties for cannabis. Their positions on these issues are yet again looking to be determinative, particularly in the Senate.

There is building momentum for comprehensive police and criminal legal reform across the country and this state. We are living in a moment that history will look back upon and ask on which side each of us was standing. 

My advice to legislators: Be on the ride side of history.