Jim Kenyon: Why No Recording?

  • 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. Geoff Hansen

Published: 3/14/2018 11:59:33 PM
Modified: 3/15/2018 9:19:17 AM

Apparently, we’ll just have to take the New Hampshire state trooper who fired seven shots at Jesse Champney — hitting him four times, including a mortal shot in the back — at his word.

Trooper Christopher O’Toole told investigators that Champney, with a hand in his jacket pocket, threatened him several times while ignoring his commands to surrender. According to O’Toole, the 26-year-old Champney said, “I have a gun. I’m going to shoot you.”

But state police have no video or audio recording of Champney doing or saying anything in that snow-covered field off Route 4 in Canaan two nights before Christmas.

Hard to believe in this high-tech age that New Hampshire state troopers aren’t equipped with body cameras and wireless microphones.

Why are state police so technology challenged? Well, for starters, it is New Hampshire.

A lack of money is part of it, said State Police Col. Christopher Wagner when I asked him about it at Wednesday’s press briefing to announce the long-awaited findings into the shooting.

I’m guessing it’s not much of a priority, either. The state prefers to keep buying more guns and bullets for troopers than invest in ways to build public trust.

Having video footage — or at the very least a recording of the verbal exchange between Champney and O’Toole before the shooting — would have gone a long way in building public confidence that things went down in the field off Switch Road the way O’Toole said they did.

Body cams and wireless microphones are as much for the officer’s protection as the public’s.

In this case, “digital evidence would have helped,” New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald acknowledged during Wednesday’s press briefing at the Grafton County Courthouse in North Haverhill.

MacDonald (a 1979 Hanover High School graduate, by the way) called the briefing to announce that his office — after an 81-day investigation — had found O’Toole’s use of deadly force to be legally justified.

No surprise there. The bar that cops must clear to avoid criminal charges in fatal shootings is extremely low. When being interviewed by investigators — who are often cops themselves — they essentially only have to say, as O’Toole did, that they face a “currently unfolding happening threat.”

Police jargon, but it works every time.

Case closed.

No matter that Champney, who police say was driving a stolen vehicle and was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear in court on a drug charge, didn’t have a gun. Or that O’Toole, who is also a member of the state police SWAT Team, fired at Champney so many times from about 60 feet away that he lost track. Or that O’Toole pulled the trigger of his .45 caliber handgun three times after Champney was already on the ground.

MacDonald and Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who headed the investigation, did a thorough and professional job of explaining how they reached their conclusions. And without any real video or audio evidence from the field that night, they had much explaining to do.

Canaan Police officer Samuel Provenza and O’Toole began pursuing Champney, after he took off from a Canaan convenience store parking lot with his fiancee, Saeti Tobin, in the passenger’s seat.

Champney ditched the car in a field a couple of miles outside of town. Provenza was wearing a wireless microphone connected to his cruiser’s dashboard video camera. (Strange how the small town of Canaan can afford such equipment but the state can’t.) Provenza remained with Tobin while O’Toole chased after Champney.

When the first shots were fired, Provenza was about 700 feet away — too far for his wireless microphone to pick up any of the exchange between Champney and O’Toole.

The only audio recording in the field was from O’Toole’s portable radio, where he’s heard informing a state police dispatcher before the shooting that Champney is “saying he is armed. Saying he wants to shoot.”

Thirty-eight seconds later, O’Toole tells the dispatcher, “Shots fired. Suspect down.”

The call to the dispatcher helps corroborate O’Toole’s version of events. But there’s still nothing — other than O’Toole’s word — that confirms Champney said, “I have a gun. I’m going to shoot you.”

After firing seven shots, O’Toole waited until Provenza made it into the field before approaching Champney, who was on the ground with four bullet wounds. He tried to sit up.

“Where’s your gun?” O’Toole asked.

Champney replied that he didn’t have one.

“Why did you do that?” the trooper asked.

The same could be asked of others that night as well.

Contact Jim Kenyon at jkenyon@vnews.com

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