Jim Kenyon: It takes a lawsuit to force transparency in Canaan police case

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/25/2020 9:40:25 PM
Modified: 8/25/2020 9:40:22 PM

It’s been nearly three years since a roadside encounter with a Canaan police officer left Crystal Eastman with a severely damaged knee and her life upside-down.

The injury, which has required two surgeries, has prevented the 36-year-old Canaan resident from returning to her job as a heavy equipment operator at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. Instead of plowing snow and running a bulldozer, Eastman works part time, scrubbing toilets and emptying waste baskets at DOT offices.

“I get bummed seeing all the equipment coming and going out of the garages, and I can’t be out there,” Eastman told me Monday. “I try to keep busy, but it’s not the life I had before.”

The pain and stiffness in her left knee is a constant. She struggles to take hikes with her husband and join her teenage daughter on bike rides. Gardening, once a favorite activity of Eastman’s, has become a chore.

It’s created financial hardships for her family as well. Her husband. Doug Wright, who also works for the DOT, makes a decent living, but Eastman doesn’t earn nearly as much as she did before her injury.

Meanwhile, Sam Provenza, the cop who engaged in what a prosecutor later described as a “physical struggle” with the 5-foot-2, 115-pound Eastman, has moved on. He’s now a trooper with the New Hampshire State Police, working out of Concord.

As I’ve written before, Eastman was following her daughter’s school bus during its afternoon run on Nov. 30, 2017. Eastman had heard the bus driver was prone to speeding, and she wanted to check it out for herself.

Responding to a call from the bus company, Provenza caught up with Eastman while she was parked on Grafton Turnpike Road.

The dashboard video camera in Provenza’s cruiser should have captured the traffic stop, which would have made it much easier to sort out what happened that afternoon. But the camera wasn’t working that day, Canaan officials say.

All the public knows for sure is that Eastman left the scene in an ambulance. According to Eastman, Provenza became angry when she didn’t hand over her driver’s license and registration fast enough for his liking. When she didn’t comply with his order to exit her SUV, Provenza yanked her out by her ponytail and forced her to the ground before handcuffing her, Eastman said.

In what I viewed as a move to justify their actions, Canaan police arrested Eastman on two misdemeanor charges. A Lebanon Circuit Court judge acquitted her of resisting arrest, but found her guilty of disobeying an officer. (She didn’t have to pay a fine.)

In June, the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld her conviction. But the aftermath continues.

The Canaan Selectboard hired Municipal Resources Inc., of Meredith, N.H., to look into the matter. The internal affairs investigation, conducted by a retired New Hampshire state trooper, cost Canaan taxpayers more than $6,000, plus legal fees.

Under the state’s right-to-know law, I asked for the report. In February 2019, the town denied my request, claiming it was a personnel matter.

After the state Supreme Court issued two rulings in May that could open the door to some police records, I asked again. The town then notified Provenza.

Almost immediately, Provenza, who joined the state police last year, went to court to block the town from releasing the report. (Eastman’s husband had requested it as well.) A hearing on Provenza’s injunction petition is expected to be held in Grafton Superior Court next month.

To stop Provenza and Canaan officials from keeping the report permanently out of the public domain, the Valley News recently asked to join the lawsuit. Judge Peter Bornstein granted the request. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is representing the paper pro bono.

“This is an important case about public transparency,” ACLU staff attorney Henry Klementowicz told me. “The town of Canaan commissioned a report at significant expense to the local taxpayers to investigate allegations of excessive force, and that report should be released.

“The public has a significant interest in knowing how the town and the Canaan Police Department supervise their employees, and whether the investigation in this case was done comprehensively and fairly.”

Without access to the internal affairs report, the “public is left in the dark,” Klementowicz wrote in a court brief. “This secrecy damages public confidence.”

He also pointed out that when “individuals accept positions as police officers paid by taxpayer dollars, they necessarily should expect closer public scrutiny.”

In a court filing, Provenza argues the “disclosure of confidential information erodes the confidence of officers to perform their duties without threats of retaliation.”

Provenza is represented by Concord attorney John Krupski, who does legal work for the New Hampshire State Police troopers’ union. I wouldn’t be surprised if the troopers’ union was footing Provenza’s legal bills. (I wanted to ask Provenza and Krupski about it, but neither got back to me on Tuesday.)

Krupski informed the court that his client requested the report, but the town refused on the grounds that “no disciplinary action was initiated.”

If the report clears Provenza of wrongdoing, as his lawyer hints, why is he — and presumably the troopers’ union — going to court to block the public from seeing it?

Simple. Cops across the state don’t want the Provenza case to set a legal precedent. The last thing that police want is for the public to have access to their laundry — dirty or otherwise.

Nationally, the movement for greater police accountability is facing stiff opposition from many rank-and-file cops and their deep-pocketed unions that have shielded them from public scrutiny for decades.

As Crystal Eastman knows whenever she goes to bend her busted knee, New Hampshire is no different.

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




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