Thank you for your interest in and support of the Valley News. We need to raise $60,000 to host journalists Frances Mize and Alex Driehaus for their one-year placements in the Upper Valley through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Jim Kenyon: Canaan case shows why police shouldn’t be policing police

  • 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: 5/15/2022 8:12:00 AM
Modified: 5/15/2022 8:10:12 AM

I’m not surprised an internal investigation cleared former Canaan police officer Sam Provenza of using excessive force during a 2017 traffic stop.

All anyone needs to know is the investigation was conducted by a former trooper with the New Hampshire State Police. If the goal is to build public trust in policing, cops investigating cops isn’t the way to go.

“There can be very little, if any, objectivity, and too much room for excusing otherwise abhorrent behavior,” said Alix Olson, who spent 30 years with the police department in Madison, Wis., before retiring to Canaan. “The fact that an officer-involved incident may well be a crime should be investigated by someone other than a retired police officer, or state trooper.”

Mark Myrdek, a police consultant at Municipal Resources Inc., the Plymouth, N.H., company the town hired to look into the allegations, stressed in his report that he was only conducting an “administrative investigation.” Before talking, Provenza was assured nothing he said would be used against him in “any criminal legal proceedings.”

In other words, Provenza, who left Canaan in 2019 for a trooper’s position with the state police, had little to fear. Particularly if the 15-page report was kept secret, which was the case for almost four years.

Although the report cleared Provenza of any wrongdoing, it wasn’t a complete whitewash.

The facts laid out in the report help explain why the town and its insurance carrier were quick to reach a $160,000 out-of-court settlement with Crystal Wright, the Canaan resident who accused Provenza of severely injuring her left knee during a roadside encounter on Nov. 30, 2017. (Wright now uses her married name, but at the time of the incident she went by Crystal Eastman.)

Myrdek wrote that Provenza “admits to using force, but the type and amount of force used may not be accurately represented by Provenza.”

According to the report, Provenza “adamantly denied ever making contact with Crystal Eastman’s knee in any way that would have caused the injuries.”

“It is difficult to understand how Provenza would not know this had occurred at some level,” the report added.

The injuries that Wright, now 38, suffered were “well documented” by DHMC physicians, the report stated. She had suffered a ruptured ACL in her left knee. After two surgeries, it still isn’t right.

Provenza’s cruiser was equipped with a dashboard video camera that could have helped determine what had happened the afternoon in question.

Just one problem. On the day he pulled over Wright, Provenza said he “simply forgot to push the button on the camera to activate it when he left the police department.”

From the outset, Wright has claimed that Provenza yanked her out of her SUV by her ponytail when she didn’t hand over her driver’s license and vehicle registration as fast as he would have liked.

When asked if he “ever grabbed her hair, Provenza said he never pulled her hair and he would have remembered if he had.”

But several teenagers who were nearby but didn’t witness the incident said during separate interviews with Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank that they heard a woman screaming, “you’re pulling my hair.”

The teenagers and Wright gave similar accounts. Provenza quite another. “This raises a question of Officer Provenza’s credibility during this investigation,” Myrdek wrote.

The report also offered a glimpse into the inner workings of the Canaan Police Department under Frank, its longtime chief.

“If you fight with the police, sometimes you get injured,” Frank said in an interview with Myrdek.

In cases of alleged use of excessive force, blaming the victim is an old police trick.

Canaan police also didn’t hesitate to go on the offensive in a not-so-subtle attempt to make the public think the 5-foot-2, 115-pound Wright was the instigator.

When Frank arrived on the scene, Wright was “in handcuffs and on the ground still in the area of the roadway.”

Before an ambulance transported Wright to DHMC, she was handed a court summons. A Lebanon Circuit Court judge later found Wright, who had no previous criminal record, not guilty of resisting arrest, but ruled she was guilty of disobeying an officer.

During the trial, the town refused to release the investigative report to Wright’s attorneys, Peter Decato and Paul McDonough. Sadly, the judge went along.

Under the state’s right-to-know law, I had requested the report in 2019 and again in 2020. Both times the town claimed it was a personnel matter and denied release.

It was only after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire took up the case pro bono on behalf of the Valley News thatthe town was forced to release the report.

In a unanimous decision last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered the report be made public, which happened on Wednesday.

In skirting the did-he-or-didn’t-he excessive force issue, Myrdek set the bar pretty low.

“The evidence is clear that this injury occurred during the arrest,” he wrote. “However, it cannot be stated with certainty that Officer Provenza intentionally caused the injury to (Wright’s) knee while taking her into custody. The question remains as to whether or not this contact by Officer Provenza was intentional or unintentional.”

Henry Klementowicz, the ACLU staff attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court, was as puzzled as I was about Myrdek’s rationale for not sustaining the excessive force complaint.

“A police officer’s use of force shouldn’t have to be intentional to be excessive,” Klementowicz said. “This just shows why it’s so important for these types of reports to be made public — so people can evaluate whether internal investigations such as this are comprehensive and accurate.”

Any investigator concluding Provenza’s actions didn’t rise to the level of excessive force is a cop out.

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




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy