Henniker seeks resolution of civil lawsuit filed after officer-involved shooting

Monitor staff
Friday, September 01, 2017

Officials in Henniker argue a federal trial is not necessary to resolve the civil claims brought against them after a town police officer shot a man in the elbow in 2014.

Instead, the town is once again asking a U.S. District Court judge to rule on the merits of the civil lawsuit, arguing the basic facts of the case are undisputed.

Aaron Cadman, 20, brought six civil claims against the town and Henniker Officer Stephen Dennis in May 2016. Cadman, who died of a drug overdose that June, was seeking $5 million in damages, claiming he suffered emotional and physical injuries as a result of Dennis’s actions Nov. 26, 2014. His family has since moved forward with the suit on his behalf.

The town contests four of the original claims – both federal and state – against Dennis and argues it should be dismissed as a party to the case. Most recently, attorneys for Cadman’s estate conceded, for the purposes of summary judgment, the remaining claim against the town, alleging officials were negligent in their training and supervision of Dennis.

Henniker filed a similar motion for summary judgment one year ago. However, at that time, U.S. District Court Judge Andrea Johnstone dismissed just one claim that sought to hold the town liable for Dennis’s actions.

Central to the lawsuit is whether Dennis acted in “good faith” or with “excessive force” when he chose to fire his duty weapon at Cadman on a state highway the day after Thanksgiving in 2014. The incident unfolded during a heavy snowstorm after Cadman stole a truck and led police on a chase. It turned out the closest thing to a weapon on Cadman was a butter knife he had in his pocket.

Dennis spotted the stolen truck, a late model GMC Sierra, traveling west on Route 202/9 near the Route 114 overpass when he began to give chase. The truck then collided with another truck, spun out of control and slammed into a car, injuring two people in the process.

An review by the Attorney General’s Office ruled the shooting justified.

“Although it turned out that Cadman had a butter knife in his pocket and not a gun, Officer Dennis’s belief that Cadman had a gun was reasonable,” the attorney general’s report said.

Dennis quickly reached the scene and exited his cruiser, gun drawn. He took cover near a truck about 20 feet away and shouted at Cadman to show him his hands. When Cadman repeatedly refused, the officer took aim at Cadman’s shoulder and pulled the trigger once, the attorney general’s report said.

“He intentionally did not take a body shot – which he felt would be justified – but aimed for his shoulder,” the town’s attorney, Brian J.S. Cullen, wrote of Dennis in the motion for summary judgment.

Cullen maintains that Dennis and other motorists were at risk of “serious physical harm” and that the officer had limited options at his disposal.

Cadman’s family contests that argument, saying Dennis could have used non-lethal force, such as a taser, but, in the moment, chose not to do so. He also acted despite knowing backup was on the way, and after leaving the protection of his cruiser.

“Dennis’ stated belief that Cadman was immediately going to turn and shoot him is not objectively reasonable,” attorney George Campbell III wrote, adding that Cadman’s failure to show his hands is “best characterized as passive resistance.”

A witness said he heard Dennis ask Cadman to put his hands up three times. Cadman, who was not armed, later said he was rifling through the truck for cigarettes.

In his objection, Campbell gave three examples from Dennis’s personnel file to bolster the town’s claim that the officer acted on impulse and has a history of failing to follow orders. However, the town contests that theory, while accusing the plaintiffs of trying to absolve Cadman of any responsibility for his actions.

“Cherry-picking three critical comments from years of evaluations does not change the circumstances facing officer Dennis after Cadman stole a truck and crashed it as he attempted to evade capture,” Cullen argued.

The town maintains Dennis has immunity under state law and is not liable for Cadman’s injuries because he acted “within the scope of his office and in good faith,” as mandated by state law.

But the definition of “good faith” is up to interpretation; the phrase is not defined in the law and the New Hampshire Supreme Court has yet to define it in a published opinion.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)