Jim Kenyon: Piercing the shield to force police transparency

  • 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: 12/5/2020 7:21:21 PM
Modified: 12/5/2020 7:21:19 PM

Why am I tough on cops? I hear the question a lot.
   For starters, police have the ultimate power in our society. They can take away a person’s freedom or even life. This by itself is enough reason to hold police officers to a higher standard of accountability than other rank-and-file public employees.

Some cops bring increased scrutiny on themselves by not owning up to their mistakes. They operate under the misconception that actions in the line of duty should be treated with impunity.

Elected officials don’t help matters. They too often go out of their way to prevent taxpayers from learning about the inner workings of their community’s police departments. Sometimes they want to avoid negative publicity. Other times they wish to avoid confrontations with deep-pocketed police unions who want people to think that cops can do no wrong.

An example of why some police actions belong under a microscope began three years ago in Canaan.

I’ve written several times about the Nov. 30, 2017, roadside encounter between then-Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza and resident Crystal Eastman. (In 2019, Provenza left Canaan to become a trooper with the New Hampshire State Police.)

The latest development in the case of alleged police misconduct came last Wednesday. In a 21-page decision, Grafton Superior Court Peter Bornstein ordered Canaan officials to turn over a 2018 investigative report on Provenza’s conduct and Police Chief Sam Frank’s handling of the matter.

The findings of the internal affairs investigation, conducted by a former New Hampshire state trooper at a cost of $6,000 to Canaan taxpayers, have been a closely guarded secret. Under the state’s right-to-know law, I twice asked town officials for the report, but was denied.

Canaan officials claimed the report was exempt from the right-to-know law, citing “internal personnel practices.”

Bornstein didn’t buy it.

In his ruling, he referred to another recent New Hampshire public records case in which the judge wrote “bad things happen in the dark when the ultimate watchdogs of accountability — i.e. the voters and taxpayers — are viewed as alien rather than integral to the process of policing the police.”

This summer, I learned the town had notified Provenza about my second attempt to obtain the report. I suspect the town was looking for cover — and it worked, for a while.

In July, Provenza sued Canaan to block it from releasing the report, arguing that his “privacy interests in an unfounded internal affairs investigation outweigh the request for disclosure to the public.”

I brought up Provenza’s suit to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. The nonprofit organization, which has a long history of arguing for greater government transparency, agreed to help the Valley News bring the Canaan police internal affairs report to light. (ACLU-New Hampshire is representing the paper at no cost.)

Bornstein granted the Valley News’ motion, made by the ACLU, for “intervenor” status in Provenza’s suit against the town. In court filings and a hearing, ACLU staff attorney Henry Klementowicz argued there is a “compelling public interest in enabling the public to use the report to evaluate the integrity of the Canaan Police Department’s internal affairs investigation of this incident.”

After following the case for three years, I can’t get past the fact that police didn’t have any video evidence from the traffic stop.

In his ruling, Bornstein noted that at some point Frank “explained that all police vehicles in Canaan, apart from Officer Provenza’s, were equipped with cameras that automatically turn on when the car is turned on. Officer Provenza’s camera, on the other hand, had to be manually activated by pushing a button.

“Chief Frank did not feel Officer Provenza’s failure to activate his cruiser camera was intentional, but rather an oversight given the situation.” The judge didn’t elaborate, and neither Frank nor Provenza responded to my interview requests last week. Provenza is appealing Bornstein’s decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which means the report won’t be available anytime soon, if at all.

No matter how the Supreme Court decides, the case isn’t going away. In September, Eastman and her husband, Doug Wright, filed a federal civil suit, alleging that Provenza used excessive force. (In the suit, Eastman goes by her married name, Crystal Wright.)

Typically, this kind of federal case is handled by big law firms who get paid only if the client wins or an out-of-court settlement is reached.

“If we didn’t think this case was worth it, we wouldn’t have taken it,” said Samantha Heuring, an associate with the Concord firm of Douglas, Leonard and Garvey. Chuck Douglas, a former state Supreme Court justice, is also working on the case.

“These cases are marathons. They take a lot of time and resources,” Heuring said.

Canaan’s legal bills, including Provenza’s, in the federal suit are covered by the town’s liability insurance plan, Town Administrator Mike Samson told me.

Frank and the town are also defendants in the suit, which alleges the “failure to train, supervise, and discipline” Provenza led to Eastman suffering physical and nonphysical injuries.

The 5-foot-2, 115-pound Eastman was taken from the scene in an ambulance. Her injuries included a ruptured ACL in her left knee. After two surgeries, the knee still isn’t right. At age 37, she’s unable to return to her job as a heavy equipment operator with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and now works part time as a DOT custodian.

Before Eastman was loaded into an ambulance that fateful November afternoon, Canaan police arrested her 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 even have to pay a fine.

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




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