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Jim Kenyon: Canaan report about police excessive force case remains a secret

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A retired New Hampshire state trooper’s investigation into the inner workings of Canaan police was completed about six months ago, but the town’s Selectboard still won’t release the report to the public.

What’s the big secret?

After all, Canaan cops have been under public scrutiny for a while.

So much so the Selectboard saw the need to hire a Meredith, N.H., company, Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI, for short), to look into possible police wrongdoing. MRI’s Mark Myrdek, who has 40 years of law enforcement experience, led the investigation.

The Selectboard and other town officials have been hush-hush about what, if anything, Myrdek uncovered. Under the state’s right-to-know law, I recently asked for the report. The request was denied.

I did learn, however, that the town sent MRI a check for $6,443 in November to cover the cost of the report.

But that was the least of it.

Since last June, Canaan taxpayers have shelled out $38,335 to the Lebanon law firm Gardner Fulton & Waugh for its work on Canaan police matters.

Talk about feeding at the public trough.

“It’s a lot of money,” acknowledged Town Administrator Mike Samson, “but the selectmen are extremely frugal. They would not spend that money without reason.”

And the reason being?

“They want to make sure we are doing things the right way,” said Samson, a lawyer by trade who has overseen Canaan’s daily operations for nine years.

Board Chairman Scott Borthwick told me the report must remain confidential because it involves town personnel. Apparently, the board is following the advice of its $180-an-hour lawyer, Shawn Tanguay, at Gardner Fulton & Waugh. (In November, the law firm announced it was merging with Portland, Maine-based Drummond Woodsum, which represents towns and school districts throughout northern New England.)

Town officials brought in Tanguay after Crystal Eastman, a 35-year-old Canaan resident with no previous arrest record, alleged officer Samuel Provenza used excessive force during a roadside encounter in November 2017.

I’ve written about the case a few times. Eastman, a heavy equipment operator with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, was following her daughter’s school bus on its afternoon run when Provenza stopped her.

Eastman said she’d heard the bus driver was prone to speeding and wanted to see for herself. Provenza asked Eastman for her driver’s license and car registration.

What followed has been disputed — largely because the dashboard video camera in Provenza’s cruiser wasn’t working. All that’s known for sure is that Eastman left in an ambulance with a serious knee injury — a torn ACL, for starters — that required surgery and has prevented her from returning to work in the 15 months since.

Eastman was charged with disobeying an officer and resisting arrest. The case still is winding its way through Lebanon district court.

Less than a month after the incident with Eastman, Provenza was the Canaan officer on the scene when 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. Again, police had no video evidence of the shooting. (Last March, the state Attorney General’s Office found O’Toole’s use of deadly force to be legally justified.)

Following the two incidents, there was a “heightened sense of discomfort in a portion of the community,” Samson said. For the “purpose of credibility,” the three-member Selectboard decided it needed an “external review of the circumstances in the Eastman case,” he added.

As part of his investigation, Myrdek, the retired state trooper, interviewed Eastman. After the report was completed, Eastman, through her attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, asked for a copy. She was denied.

Decato told me that it’s important his client have access to the report as part of her criminal defense. Only by looking at the material will he know whether it contains evidence — which by law Eastman is entitled to — that could bolster her claim that Provenza used excessive force, Decato said.

“And if I was a Canaan taxpayer, I’d also like to know what I just paid $45,000 for,” he added.

Lower Grafton County prosecutor Christopher O’Connor, who is handling the criminal case against Eastman, also asked for the report. His request was denied as well.

In a two-page letter to the prosecutor, Tanguay wrote the right-to-know law exempts “police internal investigatory files from public disclosure.”

I emailed Tanguay to ask him about the case — and his firm’s $38,000 bill — but I didn’t hear back.

Provenza, I learned this week, no longer works for Canaan police. On Feb. 1, he joined the New Hampshire State Police as a trooper assigned to Troop D in Concord.

While Canaan officials don’t intend to release the MRI report, they’re planning public workshops to talk about changes to how they handle complaints against police and other town departments, Samson said.

The initiatives, which town attorneys helped put together, are designed to make it easier for people to submit complaints and provide more “checks and balances” in the town’s appeals process, he said.

Canaan police, which includes six full-time officers, also soon will have body cameras.

To be sure, body cameras and public workshops are steps toward greater police accountability. But how far can those efforts go toward restoring public trust when the Selectboard insists on keeping under lock and key a taxpayer-funded report that was inspired by residents’ questions?

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