By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org
On Friday the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ordered that the misconduct report for former Canaan Police Officer Samuel Provenza must be made public under the state’s right-to-know law.
The purpose of RSA chapter 91-A “is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people,” wrote Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald. “As for the public interest in disclosure, we conclude that it is significant. The public has a substantial interest in information about what its government is up to … as well as in knowing whether a government investigation is comprehensive and accurate.”
Provenza, a current New Hampshire State Police trooper, was accused of assaulting Crystal Eastman Wright during a 2017 traffic stop. The town hired an outside firm Municipal Resources Inc., or MRI, to investigate Provenza, but refused to release that report to media requesting it under the right-to-know law. The town settled a lawsuit with Wright in February for $160,000.
According to Wright’s lawsuit, Provenza had a well-known reputation for use of force when he pulled her over on Nov. 30 of 2017.
During the stop, Provenza reportedly put his head into Wright’s car and was acting aggressively, according to her lawsuit. 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 states.
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 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. Provenza’s dashboard camera should have captured this incident, but there is no video of this incident.
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 a court order, and she lost her appeal to that conviction.
The federal lawsuit claims that the town and the police department knew about Provenza’s violence and that he was never properly disciplined. After Wright accused Provenza of assaulting her, the town hired MRI to conduct an investigation.
While that investigation reportedly cleared Provenza, the details of what it found were never disclosed. Valley News journalist James Kenyon sought a copy of the MRI report. Grafton Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein ordered that the report needs to be made public and Provenza appealed that ruling to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The discovery in the federal case suggested Provenza had the ability to delete his cruiser video of the Wright arrest. A subsequent right-to-know request filed by InDepthNH.org found that the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department investigated the missing video.
According to the Grafton County Sheriff’s investigative reports obtained by InDepthNH.org, Provenza had access to the department’s computer system normally reserved for supervisors. That access would have given him the ability to delete videos. Though there is no evidence any video was deleted, Aaron Treadwell, the department’s computer contractor, told investigators there was no way to know for sure.
“(Treadwell) advised that he had no way of knowing that. He stated that if someone had removed the memory card from the camera prior to the data being uploaded to one of two servers located in the booking room, it is a distinct possibility,” Wayne Fortier, an investigator with the Grafton County Sheriff’s department wrote in his report.
The investigation found that Provenza was given the higher-level access to the system in April of 2017, though Fortier reports that event had nothing to do with Wright’s stop that would take place in November of 2017.
Treadwell told Fortier that Provenza used Canaan Police Sgt. Ryan Porter’s login information in April of 2017 to give himself the authority to remove memory cards from the dashboard cameras before the data would be uploaded. The system does not make a record of when the memory cards are removed. Whoever had the authority to remove the memory card from the camera before the upload would also have the ability to delete video, Treadwell told Fortier.
Provenza claimed that his camera malfunctioned on the day of his encounter with Wright, and there is no video of the arrest. Treadwell told Fortier that seemed suspicious, given the camera worked the day before and the day after.
Provenza has denied that he tampered with the camera or the computer system.