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Jim Kenyon: In Canaan, Police Transparency Not a Priority

  • 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, August 12, 2018

On the day that Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza pulled over Crystal Eastman last November, the dashboard video camera in his cruiser was “not functioning.”

That’s really not all that surprising: Canaan cops aren’t big on modern technology. They don’t even wear body cameras. They do, however, carry stun guns, which tells me something about their priorities.

Nationally, starting with the 2014 police shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the public has come to expect cops to be able to justify their actions with more than just what they jot down in an arrest report.

Canaan police, however, don’t seem to grasp that, with the recent advances in technology, an officer’s word is no longer enough.

If they did, Eastman’s case in Lebanon District Court would likely have been over months ago. After her roadside encounter with Provenza on Nov. 30, Eastman was charged with disobeying an officer and resisting arrest.

Absent video evidence from a cruiser dashboard camera or a body cam, the case against Eastman appears shaky at best.

After sifting through court records, I wrote about the case in March. Here’s some of what I found:

Last fall, Eastman became worried that her daughter’s school bus driver sometimes traveled at unsafe speeds. To see for herself, she followed the bus on its afternoon route.

Apparently, the bus company notified Canaan police that afternoon that a “suspicious vehicle” was following one of its buses while it dropped off children.

Provenza stopped Eastman’s white SUV on Grafton Turnpike Road. Canaan being a small town, they were familiar with each other. (Eastman, 34, grew up in Canaan, and Provenza has been a police officer in the town since 2012.)

Eastman explained to Provenza her reason for following the school bus. He still wanted to see her driver’s license and registration. Since she hadn’t broken any traffic laws, Eastman questioned why that was necessary.

Provenza continued with his demands.

“This created an unexpected standoff,” Eastman’s attorney, Peter Decato, wrote in court documents.

With the driver’s side window of Eastman’s SUV rolled down, Provenza stuck his head inside and started to “sniff,” Decato wrote.

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 added.

Christopher O’Connor, a former police officer who is Canaan’s part-time prosecutor, wrote in court filings that Eastman started to give Provenza her license, “but pulled it back before he could take it from her.” Decato maintained that Eastman merely fumbled the handoff. It wasn’t intentional.

The encounter quickly escalated.

In court documents, O’Connor acknowledged a “physical struggle took place,” but he didn’t provide many details other than to say that when Provenza opened the door to physically remove Eastman, she “closed the door on the officer’s hand.”

Decato gave the court his client’s account in much greater detail. According to Eastman, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds, Provenza grabbed her hair, which was in a ponytail, and hauled her out of the car. He kneed her in the left leg. Eastman felt a pop in her knee.

With Eastman unable to put weight on her left leg, Provenza whipped her around and forced her head onto the driver’s seat to handcuff her. He then threw her to the ground.

“Crystal wasn’t resisting arrest, she was resisting an assault,” Decato told me when we talked last week.

Since Provenza wasn’t wearing a body cam and his cruiser’s dashboard camera wasn’t working, I’m not sure the public will ever get the full story.

What’s not in dispute?

Eastman’s injuries. She suffered a torn meniscus and ruptured ACL in her left knee that required surgery and extensive physical therapy. Eastman, a heavy equipment operator with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, received medical clearance to return to work only about a week ago.

Provenza was not injured, Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank told me in March.

Where does the case stand now?

A trial is scheduled for Oct. 30. But a lot could happen between now and then.

It seems that Canaan officials have hired an outside investigator to delve into the inner workings of the town’s six-officer police department.

Last week, I asked Town Administrator Mike Samson, who is an attorney by trade, how the investigation was proceeding. He didn’t tell me much. The town’s law firm, Gardner Fulton & Waugh, of Lebanon, made all the arrangements, including selecting the investigator, he said.

How much is it costing?

Samson said he didn’t know — the town had not yet received a bill. (For taxpayers’ sake, I hope the town at least got an estimate before going ahead.)

From what I gather, the investigation is part of an effort to review police policies, including when it’s appropriate for Canaan officers to use force and how much. “This is not just an issue for us, but everywhere,” Samson said.

He’s right about that.

Hoping to learn more about what was going on, I called Shawn Tanguay, an attorney with Gardner Fulton & Waugh who works with Canaan officials, a couple of times last week. I didn’t hear back.

I also didn’t find any mention of the investigation in the minutes of 2018 Canaan Selectboard meetings. (The minutes available on the town’s website only go through the board’s June 19 meeting.)

I’d argue the public has a right to know who is conducting the investigation and how much it’s costing Canaan taxpayers. But more important: What has the investigation turned up?

In a July 30 court filing in the Eastman case, prosecutor O’Connor acknowledged the investigative report was “recently completed.”

Decato has asked Circuit Court Judge Thomas Bamberger to require Canaan to turn over the report, arguing that it “likely” includes information that will show Provenza used excessive force against his client.

O’Connor has countered that the report is an internal investigative report that should remain secret.

As of last week, the judge had yet to make a ruling.

The skirmish over the investigative report is part of a bigger legal battle that Decato is waging on Eastman’s behalf.

There’s been quite a bit in the news recently about New Hampshire’s so-called Laurie List, which contains the names of law enforcement officers who have credibility issues that may prove problematic if they’re called upon to testify.

The state has kept the list for about 20 years. A 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, established that prosecutors must disclose all evidence that is favorable to defendants. Exculpatory evidence, as it’s known, includes information in a police officer’s personnel file that can relate to misconduct.

The information is only available to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the state’s county attorneys — unless an officer on the list is called to testify.

Under state rules, police chiefs are supposed to supply the attorney general with the names of their officers who have credibility issues. In July, the InDepthNH.org website reported that for years some police chiefs have been purging disciplinary records from the personnel files of officers, under provisions of collective bargaining agreements with police unions.

In response to an IndepthNH.org public records request, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald turned over a list of 171 officers who have troubling employment records. The list, formally known as the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, was heavily redacted. It included no officers’ names or whether they were still on the job.

A total of 10 officers — unnamed, of course — from six different Upper Valley police departments made the list. None were from Canaan.

In a July 28 court filing, Decato accused Frank, Canaan’s police chief, of “failing to record exculpatory evidence in (Provenza’s) personnel file or possibly purging it once it was there.”

Decato pointed out that his law firm had spoken to “at least six individuals who in the immediate past had complained that Officer Provenza had used excessive force against them. Given this record, Officer Provenza’s name is or should be on the Laurie List.”

On Aug. 2, O’Connor responded that the state has “complied with the law relating to the personnel file of Officer Provenza.”

Last week, I stopped by the Canaan police station to talk with Frank and Provenza, but they weren’t in. Later, I left a phone message for Frank and sent an email to Provenza. Neither responded.

While talking with Samson, the town administrator, I brought up some of the things I’d found in court documents. He didn’t put much stock in Decato’s allegations.

“There’s a zero or low possibility that any of our officers are going to be on the Laurie List anytime soon,” Samson told me.

In case anyone needs reminding, Provenza was the Canaan officer on the scene in December when New Hampshire state trooper Christopher O’Toole shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Champney, who fled on foot after refusing to stop for police while driving on Route 4. Just like Provenza, O’Toole wasn’t wearing a body cam.

In March, the Attorney General’s Office found O’Toole’s use of deadly force to be legally justified. No big surprise. Investigations into police actions rarely come up with any wrongdoing — particularly when there’s no video evidence.

Since the fatal shooting, Canaan officials have asked Frank whether his department was interested in obtaining body cameras, Samson told me. “The answer was no,” he said.

Samson, who I’ve always found to be friendly and professional in our dealings, said he couldn’t talk about the Eastman case because it’s still an ongoing criminal matter.

I’ve never met Eastman — she’s declined my interview requests — but I’d like to. She’s the rare defendant in a case such as this who doesn’t just roll over for police and prosecutors.

The misdemeanors that she’s been charged with carry no jail time. Most people in her situation plead guilty — whether they are or not — just to get on with their lives. They decide it’s not worth the time or money to challenge cops and prosecutors who play with taxpayers’ money.

Then there’s social media. I’ve heard law-and-order types have been pretty rough on her.

From what I can tell, we have an encounter involving a police officer and a civilian that resulted in serious injuries to the person without a uniform. The alleged wrongdoing might have been captured on video, but the police department has declined to provide themselves with the necessary equipment.

And the incident involved a police officer whose track record remains hidden from the public.

If those law-and-order types are so sure that Eastman got what she deserved, why aren’t they joining me in calling for more transparency?

For that matter, why isn’t the Canaan Police Department willing to undertake measures that would only bolster faith in its conduct?

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