By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org
The New England First Amendment Coalition is joining the lawsuit that seeks to make public a report on an alleged assault by former Canaan Police Officer Samuel Provenza that is now before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Justin Silverman, with the coalition, announced this week the organization is filing an amicus brief with the court, along with the New Hampshire Union Leader, coming out in favor of releasing the report to the public.
Gregory Sullivan, the First Amendment attorney representing the Union Leader, said in a recent video that the newspaper and the NEFAC support making the report public. The state Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases within the past year that records on police misconduct can be made public, once a balancing test has been done to protect the privacy of the police officer involved, Sullivan said.
“If all things are even, the scales tip in favor of disclosure,” Sullivan said.
Last year, Grafton Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein ordered the town of Canaan to publicly release a report on Provenza, which the town had conducted after Provenza was accused of assaulting a town resident during a 2017 traffic stop.
Valley News journalist James Kenyon was seeking a copy of the 2018 report conducted by Municipal Resources Inc., or MRI, and went to court to get it released after being denied.
Crystal Eastman Wright accused Provenza of assaulting her during the 2017 traffic stop, prompting the MRI report. According to Bornstein’s ruling, the MRI report found that Wright’s excessive force allegation against Provenza was “not sustained,” though nothing is known about how that conclusion was reached.
Bornstein sided with the Valley News in finding that there is significant public interest in knowing how police agencies investigate themselves.
“First, the public has a right to know that police take their complaints seriously and that the investigation was ‘comprehensive and accurate,’” Bornstein wrote. “Second, the public similarly has the right to know whether the police officer in question was given a fair investigation aligned with traditional notions of due process. Third, as is evidenced by the national conversation concerning policing in the United States, transparency at all levels of police conduct investigations is fundamentally important to insure the public’s confidence and trust in local police departments.”
Crystal Wright and her husband Douglas Wright are now suing Provenza and the Canaan Police Department, as well as the town, in the United States District Court in Concord. That case is pending in the federal court as Provenza is appealing Bornstein’s ruling.
When Provenza pulled Wright over on Nov. 30, 2017, Crystal Wright knew Provenza, and knew about his reputation, her federal lawsuit states.
“Mrs. Wright had heard about his history of and reputation for using violence while carrying out his law enforcement duties. In fact, Mrs. Wright heard that Officer Provenza frequently drew his gun and taser on people he came into contact with. Mrs. Wright had also heard that Officer Provenza had engaged in a pattern of roughly handling women, including pulling their hair,” the lawsuit states.
Wright and her family had issues with a school bus driver and after hearing her daughter had another problem Crystal Wright was following the bus when she was stopped by Provenza, according to her lawsuit.
During the stop, Provenza put his head into Crystal Wright’s car and was acting aggressively, according to her lawsuit. Crystal Wright is a sexual abuse survivor, according to the lawsuit, and she was uncomfortable with Provenza’s behavior. She picked up her iPhone and started recording when she heard a “ruckus,” her lawsuit states.
“It was Officer Provenza grabbing onto the door and ripping on it in an attempt to open it. His eyes were bulging out of his head, his veins were popping out of his neck, and he was visibly enraged,” the lawsuit alleges.
Provenza then allegedly grabbed the 5-foot, two-inch, 115-pound woman by her ponytail and dragged her out of her car as she was screaming and begging for someone to help, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly handcuffed her and hit her in the knee, despite the fact she was not resisting, according to the lawsuit. That blow to the knee tore her ACL, according to the lawsuit. Though Provenza’s police cruiser was equipped with a dashboard camera, that camera was not turned on during her stop, according to the lawsuit.
Crystal Wright was eventually charged with resisting arrest for the incident, but was later found not guilty, according to the lawsuit. She was convicted of disobeying a police officer, according to Bornstein’s order, and she lost her appeal to that conviction.
The lawsuit claims that the town and the police department knew about Provenza’s violence and that he was never properly disciplined.
Provenza was the only other witness present when New Hampshire State Police Trooper Christopher O’Toole shot and killed Jesse Champney in December of 2017. The shooting was deemed justified despite the fact Champney was running away from O’Toole and died from a gunshot wound to his back, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s report.