On December 21, 2018, the Union Leader Corporation and the ACLU-NH filed a lawsuit against the Town of Salem seeking the release of complete, unredacted copies of the following documents: (i) the 120-page audit report of the Salem Police Department dated October 12, 2018 focusing on internal affairs complaint investigations; (ii) the 15-page addendum focusing on the Department’s culture; (iii) the 42-page audit report of the Department dated September 19, 2018 focusing on time and attendance practices; (iv) the 14-page response dated November 9, 2018 to these three audit reports by Salem Police Department Chief Paul Donovan; and (v) the two-page memorandum from Salem Town Manager Christopher Dillon to Chief Donovan dated October 29, 2018 discussing these audit reports.
The Town of Salem’s decision to redact and shield portions of these documents from public view undermines the very purpose of the audit reports and Chapter 91-A—namely, to foster public confidence in the Town’s police and to promote government accountability. Salem’s taxpayers spent $77,000 on the audit reports that depict a Department that is dysfunctional and poorly serving the taxpayers it is tasked with protecting. The audit reports go so far as to state: “We see a system designed to intimidate members of the public and make them fearful of the consequence of filing a complaint about concerning police conduct.”
Especially in light of the reports' findings, Salem’s taxpayers, the press, and the public have a right to this information in full. As the lawsuit explains, keeping information secret, especially when it comes to police behavior, only creates distrust and suspicion. This secrecy prevents taxpayers from fully evaluating whether the Department is taking corrective measures consistent with the reports' findings and recommendations. One of the quickest ways for the Town to restore confidence in its police department would be to produce these reports in their entirety.
On April 5, 2019, the Rockingham Superior Court overruled many of the Town’s redactions. However, the Court also ruled that some of the redactions were permissible. The Union Leader and the ACLU-NH are appealing this decision.
On May 29, 2020, in a historic decision for government transparency and accountability, the New Hampshire Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court decision and remanded the case back to the Superior Court. In this decision, the state Supreme Court overruled a case from 1993 that broadly allowed government agencies to withhold information under the "internal personnel practices" exemption—even when there was compelling public interest in disclosure.