Jim Kenyon: Canaan Mom Injured by Police Officer Cries Foul

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Crystal Eastman had heard that her 11-year-old daughter’s school bus driver had something of a lead foot. Worried about the safety of her daughter and other kids, Eastman followed the bus one day after school to see for herself.

Shortly before 4 p.m. on Nov. 30, Canaan police were notified (apparently by the bus company) that a “suspicious vehicle” was following a bus dropping off schoolchildren around town.

Canaan officer Samuel Provenza responded. He came upon the bus and Eastman’s white SUV on Grafton Turnpike Road, not far from where Eastman and her family live.

That’s where this story gets interesting — or alarming, depending on your point of view about when a police officer’s use of force is justified.

The encounter between Provenza and Eastman has turned into a criminal matter that will probably stretch on for a while in Lebanon District Court. In the meantime, the courthouse file in Case No. 452-2017-01812 gets thicker by the week.

I reviewed the court documents, including Eastman’s sworn statement, to help piece together what happened that afternoon. Here’s some of what I found:

After stopping Eastman’s SUV, Provenza asked what she was up to. She explained. He then wanted to see her driver’s license and vehicle registration.

Is that really necessary? Eastman asked. Eastman, who grew up in Canaan, maintained that Provenza, who has been a police officer in town since 2012, already knew who he was dealing with. Besides, she was just following the bus; she hadn’t broken any traffic laws.

Provenza continued to demand that she hand over her driver’s license and registration. Eastman continued to balk.

According to Eastman’s sworn statement, the officer told her, “Fine. We can sit here all day.”

“This created an unexpected standoff,” Eastman’s attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, wrote in a court filing.

With the driver’s side window of Eastman’s car still rolled down, Provenza stuck his head inside and started to “sniff.” The officer’s head was “so far into Crystal’s automobile that Officer Provenza could have kissed Crystal’s lips if he was so inclined,” Decato wrote.

“What are you doing? You can’t do that,” Eastman responded.

At this point, Eastman retrieved her driver’s license from her wallet.

What happened next is up for debate.

Christopher O’Connor, who is Canaan’s part-time prosecutor, wrote in court documents that Eastman started to give Provenza her license, “but pulled it back before he could take it from her.”

Decato countered that while the handoff was fumbled, it wasn’t Eastman’s intention. Before Provenza had hold of the license, Eastman had reached with her other hand for the car registration in the glove compartment.

Apparently, Provenza had had enough. He ordered Eastman out of the car, O’Connor wrote. Instead of complying, Eastman reached for her cellphone. “She wanted her cellphone to record what was happening because she was terrified by Officer Provenza’s behavior,” Decato wrote.

Provenza informed her that she was under arrest for disobeying a police officer, Eastman said.

The officer then opened the driver’s door to physically remove her. “When (Provenza) attempted to do so, (Eastman) closed the door on the officer’s hand,” O’Connor wrote.

Last week, I asked Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank about that aspect of the incident. He told me that Provenza wasn’t injured.

Provenza got the door open. But other than to acknowledge that a “physical struggle took place,” O’Connor didn’t provide many details about Provenza’s use of force.

Decato, however, did:

As she was being pulled from the car, Eastman, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds, began beeping her car horn and screaming for help. Provenza grabbed Eastman by her hair, which was in a ponytail.

Outside the car, Provenza kneed Eastman in the left leg, according to Decato. She felt her knee snap. Provenza “then tossed (Eastman) around and began to tell her to stand up.”

“I think my leg is broken,” Eastman said.

Provenza then whipped her around and forced her head onto the driver’s seat where he handcuffed her. He then “throws (Eastman) to the ground,” Decato wrote.

Now this is a case where having a police cruiser equipped with a dashboard video camera could make all the difference.

Just roll the videotape to find out what really happened. It would eliminate the he-said, she-said accounts of the incident.

And it just so happens that Canaan’s cruisers are equipped with video cameras. Except this incident wasn’t caught on camera, Canaan officials say.

How could that be?

“We have video cameras in the cruisers, but on occasion, they don’t work,” Town Administrator Mike Samson, who is an attorney, told me. “It’s not an intentional thing.”

When I mentioned this to Decato, he shared a portion of Provenza’s police report that is not yet in the court file to clarify matters.

“There is no audio-video of this incident, as the cruiser camera must be manually powered on prior to being able to record any events,” Provenza wrote. “My cruiser was at the Canaan Police Department as it had been in the maintenance shop previously. When I received the emergency call, I responded immediately without delaying the response to first power up the audio/video recording system and then logging in.”


I was hoping to talk with Provenza, but Frank said that wasn’t possible — the case is still ongoing. Eastman also declined to sit down for an interview on the advice of her attorney.

Eastman, 34, has been charged with two misdemeanors — disobeying an officer and resisting arrest. She’s pleaded not guilty, arguing that Provenza used excessive force while making an “illegal arrest” since he didn’t have a valid reason for detaining her once she told him what she was doing. If convicted, Eastman faces substantial fines and a loss of driving privileges.

But that’s not all she’s dealing with.

Remember Eastman telling Provenza that she feared her leg was broken?

An ambulance took Eastman from the scene that afternoon to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. After examining her, an emergency department physician requested that a forensic nurse be called in.

That’s standard protocol, I’m told, in cases where doctors suspect that a patient could be the victim of a physical assault. It’s the job of a forensic nurse, sometimes called a nurse examiner, to collect evidence that might prove useful in a potential criminal matter.

The DHMC physician also wanted to bring in WISE, according to Decato’s court filings. When called upon, WISE, a Lebanon-based social service organization, sends one of its advocates to the hospital to support people who might be victims of gender-based violence.

It turns out that Eastman didn’t have a broken leg. She had suffered a ruptured ACL in her left knee. In January, she underwent reconstructive knee surgery at DHMC and is now in outpatient physical therapy.

Meanwhile, she remains on medical leave from her job as a heavy equipment operator with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

She is scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing on March 27, but Decato is pushing for the charges to be dismissed.

In court documents filed last week, Decato argued that Canaan police are withholding evidence that could be favorable to Eastman, which by federal and state law they’re required to turn over. Exculpatory evidence, as it’s called, includes information in an officer’s personnel file, including records of excessive use of force.

“The defense knows there have been complaints filed against Officer Sam Provenza,” Decato wrote. “If these complaints are not in Officer Provenza’s personnel file, then they are being withheld.

“Dismissal is the only appropriate remedy because someone in the Canaan Police Department is withholding exculpatory evidence.”

In an earlier court filing, O’Connor wrote that all “relevant evidence,” including a short video shot by a passerby at the scene, has been turned over.

When I caught up with him at the courthouse last week, O’Connor told me that even without a police video he had reason enough to go ahead with the case. “All the elements are there,” he said, referring to the charges of disobeying an officer and resisting arrest.

In his court filings, Decato couldn’t have disagreed more. “Officer Provenza wasn’t just arresting her; he was assaulting her,” he wrote.

On Dec. 23 — a little more than three weeks after Eastman ended up at the hospital — Provenza was at the scene when a state trooper shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Champney in Canaan.

The state’s investigation into whether trooper Christopher O’Toole’s use of deadly force was justified is not yet complete, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin told me Friday.

After sifting through Canaan’s most recent annual Town Report, it’s not hard for me to see why Provenza might have been so zealous in his encounter with Eastman. Canaan cops seem to take pride in arresting people.

In his report to townspeople, Frank pointed out that his department made more arrests (214) in 2017 than Hanover or Enfield.

“Both of these neighboring agencies operate with much larger budgets and number of officers than our agency,” he wrote.

But a male officer grabbing a woman by her ponytail? Forcibly pulling her from her car? Escalating an encounter to the point the woman suffers a serious leg injury that requires surgery?

It all seems a bit excessive.

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