Kenyon: Constitutional rights should trump Dartmouth’s private interests

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

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

In a screenshot from Canaan Police Officer Joseph Leva's body camera, Andrew Tefft is arrested during protests at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on May 1, 2024. (Canaan Police screenshot)

In a screenshot from Canaan Police Officer Joseph Leva's body camera, Andrew Tefft is arrested during protests at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on May 1, 2024. (Canaan Police screenshot) Screenshot of Canaan police body cam footage

In a screenshot from Canaan Police Officer Joseph Leva's body camera, Andrew Tefft is asked by Leva to move off of the Dartmouth College green during a protest in Hanover, N.H., on May 1, 2024. (Canaan Police screenshot)

In a screenshot from Canaan Police Officer Joseph Leva's body camera, Andrew Tefft is asked by Leva to move off of the Dartmouth College green during a protest in Hanover, N.H., on May 1, 2024. (Canaan Police screenshot) Canaan Police screenshot

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-10-2024 7:46 PM

Modified: 05-12-2024 8:43 AM


Andrew Tefft wasn’t inside a tent on the Dartmouth College Green. He hadn’t locked arms with protesters who had formed a circle around the short-lived encampment. The 45-year-old Hanover native didn’t have a pro-Palestinian sign.

Still within 30 minutes of arriving on the Green on May 1, Tefft was facedown on the ground in handcuffs with a broken left arm.

How did Tefft go from a protest onlooker to someone requiring medical care and facing potential jail time as well?

It’s just one of many unanswered questions about what happened during — and before — the peaceful demonstration, which would have gone even more peacefully if 20 cops in riot gear hadn’t marched across the Green in the dark to confront activists. The storm troopers from a New Hampshire “special operations unit” were joined by dozens of state police officers and cops from Hanover and other Upper Valley communities.

Before the night was over, 89 people, including Tefft, were arrested for criminal trespass. Two professors and two journalists from the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, who were covering the protest, were among those taken into police custody.

The show of force had been in the works for several days, after word got out that Dartmouth student activists planned to set up an encampment on the Green. I’m told in the hours before the demonstration, emissaries of Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock attended a meeting with law enforcement where a plan of attack was mapped out.

With some campuses across the country in turmoil, Beilock opted for a hard line approach to any pro-Palestinian protests on campus or demands for Dartmouth to divest its $8 billion endowment from companies and private investment funds tied to the Israeli military.

It’s safe to presume that Beilock didn’t act on her own accord. Undoubtedly, her crackdown had the support of key Dartmouth trustees and big-money donors, the audiences in the first-year president’s orbit that she appears most eager to please.

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The cops, particularly Hanover Chief Charlie Dennis, got duped. The over-the-top call to arms was out of character for Dennis. In his 10 years as Hanover chief, he’s earned a reputation for taking a measured approach in dealing with Dartmouth students.

But Dartmouth led police to believe that if the encampment wasn’t immediately shut down, they could be looking at another Columbia University in the making. Scare tactics worked — just not on students but police.

(On the night of the arrests, a Hanover Police spokeswoman said Dennis didn’t have time to talk with me. Since then, he hasn’t responded to my email inquiries.)

Police didn’t need to be on the Green. At most, a few cops — not outfitted in riot gear — could could have observed from adjacent sidewalks and streets.

But Beilock welcomed armed interlopers on her campus. And not to just stand watch. Ahead of the demonstration, Hanover police put out a call to other Upper Valley law enforcement agencies. Hanover needed help breaking up an “illegal assembly,” a Canaan officer wrote in a report that I obtained through a public records request under the state’s right-to-know law.

Which brings me back to Tefft.

On Monday, we talked on the porch at his father’s house in Hanover, a short walk from downtown. Tefft’s left arm was in a black sling, given to him during his visit Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s emergency department the morning after his arrest. He had large bruises on both arms.

Tefft, a 1997 Hanover High School graduate, lives in Watertown, Mass., with his wife and their two children. He had taken a bus to Hanover to spend some time with his dad. Fred Tefft, a retired Thetford Academy industrial arts teacher, lives alone. Andrew’s mother, Kathy, who worked for many years in Dartmouth’s athletics department, died in 2018.

On the night of the protest, Tefft walked to a downtown Hanover pub to watch a Boston Celtics playoff game over beer and a bowl of chili.

Around 8:45 p.m., Tefft wandered over to the Green. “I knew the protest was going on,” he said. “I could hear students chanting.”

Like a lot of Hanover natives, Tefft grew up looking at the Green as a large public park. It was a place to meet up with friends, toss a football or hang out at events, such as the massive bonfire during Dartmouth’s annual homecoming weekend.

After crossing Wheelock Street, Tefft stayed on the side of the Green nearest the Hanover Inn. He arrived after state police had issued its stern warning to clear the Green.

“If you do not leave the area, the use of physical force can be used against you and you will be arrested,” a state police officer announced over a loudspeaker to the 500 or so protesters.

Tefft pulled out his cellphone to make a video.

“I knew it was getting serious when the riot police were moving in, grabbing people,” he said. “I was trying to keep my distance.”

He was out of harm’s way, or so he thought.

Some cops, however, viewed the state police warning issued as giving them carte blanche. “All individuals encountered were instructed to move back and leave; those who refused were subsequently arrested,” one of three Canaan officers on the Green wrote in his report.

To Canaan Police Chief Ryan Porter’s credit, he sent me the officers’ reports three days after I made the public records request. By contrast, Hanover Town Manager Alex Torpey has refused for months to turn over police reports stemming from the arrests of two Dartmouth student activists on Beilock’s office lawn in October. The case, which attorneys for the town and the Valley News argued in Grafton County Superior Court last month, remains unsettled.

Along with the arrest reports, Porter sent me video footage taken by his three officers’ body cameras of the incident.

As the riot police began to move in on protesters, Officer Joseph Leva, who was in his regular uniform, took notice of Tefft, who was standing alone about 25 feet away and wearing a black baseball cap. “I pointed my flashlight at (Tefft) and asked him to move back toward the other participants,” Leva wrote in his report. “He questioned me several times, and I asked him again to move back each time, even pointing with my flashlight in the direction I wanted him to move in.”

Tefft was “noncompliant with the lawful orders I was giving and gave no indication he was willing to comply,” Leva added.

Tefft told me that he didn’t understand what the officer was asking him to do. At that point, Leva informed Canaan Det. Amanda Lewis, who was nearby, that he planned to arrest Tefft. A police video shows the officer hustling toward Tefft. “I immediately noticed a powerful odor of an alcoholic beverage,” Leva wrote.

Two other officers followed Leva. The encounter quickly turned ugly.

“I remember going to the ground and not being able to break my fall,” said Tefft, who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 190 pounds.

I happened to catch the end of Tefft’s arrest in person on May 1. Three officers had him pinned to the ground.

Police videos show a handcuffed Tefft struggling with officers as they “escorted” him to a Canaan police cruiser. “You’re making things harder on yourself,” a cop told him.

An officer warned Tefft that if he didn’t stop “fighting us … we’re dumping you.”

“Where?” Tefft retorted. “In the Connecticut River.”

The incident wasn’t Tefft’s finest moment. He cursed repeatedly at the officers and made derogatory remarks. “I was thrashing in a panic,” he said. “I was angry and shocked.”

After he was booked at the Hanover police station and paid a $40 bail commissioner’s fee, Tefft walked the couple of miles to his father’s house. It took him past the Green, where police were still present.

In the night, his shoulder and wrist began to throb. “I didn’t know how badly I was hurt,” he said.

Early the next morning, without waking his dad, Tefft rode an Advance Transit bus to DHMC. X-rays showed he had suffered a “nondisplaced fracture of (the) surgical neck of (his) left humerus,” the arm bone that runs between the shoulder and elbow, stated a DHMC emergency department report he shared.

On Friday, I called Porter to ask for his assessment on how the officers handled the encounter. He emailed back that he couldn’t give a “statement regarding the event.” Since it’s a criminal matter, Porter wrote that he couldn’t “address any queries from the press or the public until the prosecution of the charges associated with this incident is concluded.”

I get that some cops were on edge that night. They were largely outnumbered. Protesters’ chants of “there’s no riot here, why are you in riot gear” and “divest, not arrest,” echoed across the darkened Green.

But there was nothing to indicate that Tefft or anyone else on the Green posed a threat. In Tefft’s case, he didn’t have a reason to think he was doing anything wrong. Generally-speaking, though, cops don’t like their authority questioned. Doing so, as Tefft discovered, can get a person hurt.

Of the 89 people taken into custody, Tefft was the only one to get hit with the additional charge of resisting arrest.

From what I saw that night, the arrests often seemed arbitrary. Hundreds of people were milling around the Green. How police decided who to haul away in Dartmouth vans made little sense.

As one law enforcement officer said to me: “It was a lottery.”

This week, Beilock’s focus turned to reputation management, hers not the college’s. “No one, including me, wanted to see heavily armed police officers in the heart of our campus,” she wrote to students. “Nor did we want any members of our community to be arrested. I was extremely concerned that the violence we have seen on so many other campuses would occur at Dartmouth, whether immediately or in the days to follow.

“Encampments on other campuses incited violent anger, horribly divided student bodies, created exclusionary zones and attracted outside agitators.”

Beilock added that the student journalists for The Dartmouth “should not have been arrested for doing their jobs.” Shortly thereafter, the paper reported that charges against the journalists were being dropped, reducing the number of students who were arrested to 63.

That leaves Tefft and 86 other defendants. On Tuesday, Tefft submitted a form at Lebanon District Court, indicating he was pleading not guilty and waiving his arraignment. It’s fair to assume that most, if not all, of the others will do the same. Which returns us to the unresolved matter of the two student activists arrested in October for criminal trespass. Their trial won’t likely finish until summer. Beilock is expected to testify, after the college’s outside attorney failed to get her subpoena quashed by the trial judge.

A public airing also needs to occur outside a courtroom. People deserve an opportunity to question town officials about what went down on May 1 and why police willingly acted as Beilock’s goon squad. Hanover’s annual Town Meeting, scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Hanover High gym, would be a place for residents — and I’m including Dartmouth students — to start holding police, the town manager and the Selectboard accountable for the use of tax payer-funded resources in this debacle.

A wealthy college’s private interests shouldn’t take priority over individuals’ constitutional rights.

Not even in a company town.

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