CONCORD — The board that decides who wears a police badge in New Hampshire held its first open hearing on the status of errant police officers’ certifications on Tuesday.
The decertification hearings were the first conducted by the Police Standards and Training Council since a Superior Court judge ruled in June that those proceedings should be open in most circumstances. Bipartisan legislation that would institute similar reforms awaits Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature.
Judge Andrew Schulman ruled on a case brought by the New Hampshire Union Leader. The newspaper challenged a longstanding practice that allowed any police or corrections officer facing decertification the option of closing a decertification hearing to the public.
In the first two cases heard Tuesday, the council maintained the certifications of a Manchester police officer guilty of DWI and a Tilton police officer whose chief did not properly disclose problems uncovered in a background investigation.
“From the get-go, we’ve been transparent,” said Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, who spoke before the council in favor of his officer. “I’m not hiding from the fact I’m up here advocating for an employee.”
The council comprises heads of law enforcement and corrections organizations, judges and prosecutors. It oversees the New Hampshire Police Academy and takes up issues with certification of police and corrections officers.
Last year, the Union Leader reported that most of the council’s decertification work was done behind closed doors, unlike other state boards that consider licensing and certification.
In a ruling issued in June, Schulman said the hearings should be open unless a compelling reason, usually related to an officer’s personal privacy, exists to close them.
“This is a new way of doing business,” said state Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks, vice chair of the council.
That was evident when Concord lawyer John Krupski, who represented Manchester police officer Richard Valenti, asked the council to consider his case behind closed doors. A council vote was required to do so, but not a single member moved to take a vote on the matter, and Hanks said the hearing would be public.
Krupski did prevail on a vote to seal Valenti’s medical records, and the council briefly went behind closed doors to hear Valenti and Aldenberg speak about what the council later said were confidential medical matters.
The council voted unanimously to suspend Valenti’s certification for 60 days, a period that has already lapsed following an initial suspension in late May.
New Hampshire State Police arrested Valenti on Interstate 93 in Bow last February and charged him with driving while intoxicated. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the charge.
An officer of 14 years, Valenti has a discipline-free record, has twice been recognized for saving someone’s life, hasn’t missed a day’s work in three years and had passed the sergeant’s exam, Krupski said. He even won a New Hampshire Hero Award from the Union Leader.
Speaking in generalities, Valenti’s lawyer said police officers suffer from higher rates of alcoholism, mental illness and suicide.
Aldenberg said wellness has been a top priority since he became chief.
“This was the first moment of truth,” the chief said. “Was I going to pat him on the back and send him away? I just can’t do that.”
In another case, the council unanimously issued a waiver for Tilton police officer Tyler Colcord, whose certification was technically out of compliance because he sold a bag of marijuana when he was 18.
Colcord admitted doing so during his background review to become a police officer. But the mid-level officers handling the review never disclosed the information to the police chief at the time, Robert Cormier.
Cormier, who is now retired, appeared alongside Colcord to explain the mishap.
“For some reason, it was an administrative oversight,” Cormier said.
Colcord said his girlfriend at the time smoked marijuana. He purchased the quantity with her and then sold his share. He said he sold it for less than he paid. That was a key fact because PSTC forbids certification for anyone who sold drugs at a profit.
The council was more willing to go behind doors to hear requests for waivers for police officer applicants who ran into problems with their certifications.
They did so for an applicant for state police.
But other agencies — Manchester, Rochester and Hinsdale — allowed their cases to be held in the open. They granted waivers for applicants who smoked marijuana during a party, took Adderall during college finals, had a drunken driving conviction in college, and cheated on a police academy test.