Jim Kenyon: Hard to Justify in Canaan

  • 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.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The makeshift memorial — its small wooden cross painted blood red — in a snow-blanketed field off Route 4 in Canaan is a chilling reminder of the absolute power that police possess.

Two days before Christmas, a New Hampshire State Police trooper shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Champney after he jumped out of a car and fled on foot through the field’s deep snow.

Champney, who’d had his share of scrapes with the law in recent years, shouldn’t have run.

But judging by the scant details that state investigators have released in the two weeks since the shooting, he didn’t deserve to die, either.

Champney and his fiancee, Saeti Tobin, had just left a Canaan convenience store at about 6:30 p.m. when they noticed police following them.

Two miles west of town, while attempting to turn onto a side road, Champney plowed the car, which didn’t have the best of tires, into the field.

Tobin remained in the car. But Champney started to run toward the woods. He was just “trying to get away,” Tobin told Valley News staff writer Jordan Cuddemi. “He was scared and wanted to be with his family for the holidays. That’s it.”

State trooper Christopher O’Toole ran after him. Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza stayed behind, handcuffing Tobin. (She was later released without being charged.)

Champney never reached the woods. According to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, O’Toole shot him four times.


The Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating whether O’Toole’s use of deadly force was justified, has said little about what happened in the dark field that Saturday evening.

It hasn’t even said whether Champney was armed, which would go a long way in helping people understand why O’Toole fired his weapon four times. (In an interview with the Valley News, Josh Champney said his brother sometimes carried a pocketknife.)

According to the Attorney General Office’s news release on Dec. 24, it appears investigators also saw no problem with waiting three or four days to interview the two officers.

The delay doesn’t give the public much confidence that the state is taking the investigation seriously. But that’s not surprising. When it comes to investigating police shootings, prosecutors around the country tend to treat cops with kid gloves.

Police are often afforded a “cooling off” period before being asked to sit down for interviews, which are frequently conducted with police union representatives or their attorneys in the room.

In 2015, a USA Today editorial pointed out that, “State laws and police union contracts across the country grant officers waiting periods of up to 10 days when they can refuse to be interrogated.

“Skeptics view the delays as time for officers to tailor their stories.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who is overseeing the investigation, told me in an email that nothing in New Hampshire “mandates an interview within a certain timeframe.

“Instead, the timing of interviews is dictated by many factors, such as: the mental and/or physical condition of the witness (some witnesses need time before they can sit for an interview); the willingness of the person to be interviewed… and strategic considerations applicable to the particular facts of the investigation.”

Fair enough. But I still have difficulty imagining an everyday citizen who shoots someone four times with no eyewitnesses would be given several days to collect himself before authorities knocked on his door.

If this investigation follows a well-established pattern in police shootings, the Attorney General’s Office will rule the use of deadly force was justified. But investigators will have a hard time convincing skeptics for one reason: O’Toole wasn’t wearing a body camera.

Provenza, the Canaan cop, wasn’t either. The state police and Canaan police don’t equip officers with body cameras, which play a critical role in re-establishing public confidence that cops are being held accountable.

Provenza’s cruiser had a dashboard camera, but it didn’t capture the shooting because it was too far away, Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank told me.

When we talked last week, Frank also indicated that Champney was driving a stolen vehicle. Tobin, Champney’s fiancee, told this paper that they had borrowed the car and were returning it the night of the shooting.

Champney was no choir boy. He served time in prison for theft. At the time of the shooting, he faced a warrant for failing to appear in court, after being charged with possession of heroin with intent to sell and resisting arrest in 2016.

But he didn’t seem to have a history of violent crime.

As strange as this might sound, I don’t blame O’Toole for the way things turned out. I’ve heard he’s on the young side. (I asked a state police spokesman for O’Toole’s age and how many years he’s been a trooper, but didn’t hear back.)

Sadly, I have little doubt that O’Toole was only doing as he was taught. It’s drilled into cops that in today’s world it’s their job to eliminate threats — to themselves, in particular. Too many bad guys have guns. More and more police officers have adopted an us-against-them attitude.

Champney’s mother, Cheryl Mason, has retained George Ostler, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Norwich, to look into the incident.

On the surface, the shooting makes no sense, Ostler said. “Jesse was a local boy. Police knew his family and where he lived.”

In other words, there was no reason to chase him through that field. Police could have waited. But once cops go into pursuit mode, “the danger of something going wrong escalates highly,” Ostler said.

“Over the last 20 years, there’s definitely been a militarization of the police,” he added. “It has to do with their training, equipment and approach. Not just here, but everywhere.”

One of the homemade signs in the Canaan field’s memorial seeks “Justice for Jesse.”

There was a time in this country when that didn’t seem too much to ask.

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