Concord — The mother of a 41-year-old man who was shot and killed by Haverhill police in July 2015 after he charged at them with a knife is suing the police department and three of its officers, claiming they mishandled the encounter.
Donna Esty, both individually and on behalf of the estate of her son Hagen Esty-Lennon, has sued the Haverhill Police Department; officers Ryan Jarvis and Gregory Collins, who shot and killed Esty-Lennon, a Canterbury, N.H., resident; and Detective Sgt. Wallace Trott, who arrived on scene after the incident.
A few weeks after the shooting, the state Attorney General’s Office ruled the officers’ actions were legally justified. However, Esty’s lawyer, Peter McGrath, contended on Thursday that Jarvis and Collins violated Esty-Lennon’s constitutional rights when they shot him a total of six times on Route 302 in Bath, N.H.
The lawsuit alleges that Trott failed to properly instruct and supervise the officers, as did the police department as a whole. The police department’s “unconstitutional policies and practices” also led to the “unjustified shooting,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Concord on Tuesday.
The shooting was captured by the officers’ body cameras, as well as a police cruiser camera, and according to the attorney general’s report, Esty-Lennon, an Army veteran, crashed his SUV on an old iron bridge before the incident and had what appeared to be a “self-inflicted” knife wound to his chest.
“Forcing your way forward into a situation where the victim is plainly injured, and without a firearm, and creating a confrontation unnecessarily, and repeatedly shooting at a man who is visibly injured and disoriented is a violation of a clearly established constitutional right,” the 21-page lawsuit asserts. “A reasonable officer should have recognized that a car accident victim could have a prior head injury, be disoriented, in shock and not in a clear state of mind. The victim should not be shot down.”
Esty has sued on nine counts, including wrongful death, violation of civil rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision and training. An award amount is not specified.
U.S. District Court Judge Andrea K. Johnstone has been assigned to the case. The defendants haven’t yet responded in court.
Haverhill Police Chief Byron Charles Jr. and Charles Bauer, the lawyer representing the Haverhill Police Department and Jarvis, issued a statement on behalf of the defendants.
“It is unfortunate that our dedicated police officers have been sued,” Bauer and Charles said in a joint prepared statement. “This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and found to have been completely justified under the circumstances.”
They continued: “Our sympathies are extended to the children and family members of Mr. Esty-Lennon and to our officers, their families, children and the community of our police officers. At this point, we will say no more.”
Messages left for Collins’ attorney, Brian Cullen, and Trott’s attorney, John Curran, weren’t returned. Collins is no longer employed by Haverhill police; he was involved in a bad car accident in August 2016, Bauer said, though he declined to comment further.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, McGrath, a former federal prosecutor, said he used to teach at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where federal officers learn techniques to disarm someone while also protecting rights.
He said Jarvis, Collins and Trott lacked training in that area, and the police department, as a whole, is responsible.
“Small-town policemen unfortunately don’t get that same kind of training,” McGrath said. “I think these guys overreacted. They didn’t need to kill him, and it is unfortunate.”
Instead of firing their weapons, McGrath said Jarvis and Collins should have used less-than-lethal force, such as deploying a stun gun, or should have retreated and called for backup.
According to the Attorney General’s Office report, the officers tried to defuse the situation. They called out to Esty-Lennon to stop advancing toward them and to drop the knife he was carrying. One of the officers also pulled out a stun gun, something the Attorney General’s Office said likely wouldn’t have stopped Esty-Lennon.
“At the time Esty-Lennon turned and ran toward the officers, it would have been highly unlikely that the Taser would have deployed successfully, stopping Esty-Lennon before he could use deadly force against the officers,” the report said.
Esty-Lennon ignored their commands and at one point retreated from the officers, but turned around and charged toward them, coming within 10 to 15 feet, according to the report. The officers then fired a total of ten shots. Esty-Lennon died from a wound to his shoulder, the state medical examiner concluded.
Toxicology reports showed Esty-Lennon had higher-than-therapeutic doses of amphetamine in his blood as well as “a quantity” of Klonopin, an anti-convulsive and anti-anxiety medication.
The Attorney General’s Office drew the conclusion that Esty-Lennon may have been suffering from mental health issues at the time, and may have been trying to harm himself.
In the lawsuit, McGrath called the attorney general’s report “wrong in many material ways.”
“The report reveals a disturbing pattern of law enforcement officers and officials protecting one another,” the suit states.
Donna Esty is taking her son’s death very hard, McGrath said, and is of ill health.
“She can’t handle it,” McGrath said. “She is really upset.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.