Report released on probe into Canaan police traffic stop that left woman injured

  • Canaan Police officer Sam Provenza, center, and Sgt. Ryan Porter investigate a single-motorcycle crash that injured its driver and passenger in West Canaan, N.H., on June 17, 2012. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Theophil Syslo

Valley News
Published: 5/12/2022 3:47:04 PM

A taxpayer-funded investigation into a former Canaan police officer, with findings kept secret for years and requiring a right-to-know lawsuit to access, did not substantiate claims that he used excessive force against a woman during a 2018 traffic stop but also cast doubt on portions of the officer’s story.

Samuel Provenza, despite his denials, likely caused Crystal Wright’s serious knee injury, according to an outside consultant’s report released Wednesday. But at the same time the investigator, Mark Myrdek, could not determine whether the injury suffered by Wright was “intentional or unintentional” and therefore her complaint of excessive force against Provenza “is not sustained,” Mydek wrote in the report.

The release of the 17-page 2018 investigation into Provenza’s conduct, ordered in a unanimous decision by the New Hampshire Supreme Court last month, is the culmination of a yearslong legal challenge by the New Hampshire ACLU and the Valley News to pry open a report that Canaan town officials contended needed to be kept private because it involved personnel matters.

Wright claimed that Provenza, now a state trooper, assaulted her when he pulled over her SUV for following a school bus in 2017.

Provenza, according to Wright, violently yanked her from her vehicle, pulled her hair and struck her knee – causing an injury which required two surgeries — when she did not produce her driver’s license and vehicle registration. Provenza denied using excessive force while arresting Wright, who was charged with two misdemeanors.

A Lebanon circuit court judge later acquitted Wright of resisting arrest but found her guilty of disobeying a police officer. (Wright now uses her married name but at the time of the incident went by Crystal Eastman.)

The town-commissioned investigation, prepared by Meredith, N.H.-based consultant firm Municipal Resources Inc. and conducted by Myrdek, a former New Hampshire state trooper, included summations of interviews with Wright and Provenza, Canaan Police Chief Samuel Frank and four teenagers who were nearby and heard parts of the Nov. 20, 2017, incident.

Wright and Provenza provided “similar, but not exact, accounts of what took place” during the incident, Myrdek wrote, noting that “in a physical struggle like this, often each person has a different recollection of what exactly occurred.”

In her account, Wright said she had got off work as a heavy equipment operator for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in Rumney and was heading back home to Canaan to pick up her daughter at the school bus stop. Wright told the investigator when she was behind the bus, she noticed the flashing lights of the police cruiser in her rearview mirror and pulled over.

“Hey Crystal, what’s going on?” Wright recalled Provenza saying when he approached her driver-side window. The two recognized each other from “previous contacts,” according to the report.

Wright said she informed Provenza she was following the school bus because she believed the driver speeds and allows her husband to ride along “even though he has not passed a background check and might be a pedophile,” Myrdek wrote.

Wright, who described herself as “very agitated” during the encounter, said Provenza leaned his head through the SUV’s window and “sniffed” her, getting close enough to Wright’s face “that he could have kissed her.”

The roadside traffic stop quickly escalated into a physical altercation when Wright said she did not produce her driver’s license and car registration quickly enough.

Provenza informed her she was under arrest and forcefully tried to remove her from the vehicle by pulling her hair while she resisted by wrapping her arm around the steering wheel, Wright told the investigator.

Provenza spun Wright around on the seat to handcuff her. That’s when Wright said she felt her left knee get hit, heard a “pop” sound and felt significant pain, according to her account.

Provenza’s account to the investigator is similar to Wright’s, but he denied both pulling her hair or making any physical contact with Wright’s knee or legs.

The police officer contended that Wright was acting “nutty and weird” when he approached her and that he “sniffed” her to determine if her alleged behavior was the result of alcohol or marijuana use. Provenza said Wright was “not making sense” and “rambling,” Myrdek reported.

But in his report, Myrdek wrote “there is no evidence to support that (Wright) was impaired to any degree.”

Provenza “adamantly denied ever making contact with (Wright’s) knee in any way that would have caused injuries,” the investigator wrote. “He could not explain how she may have received the knee injury.”

Myrdek also interviewed four teenage witnesses to the roadside encounter, three of whom all said they had heard Wright scream to Provenza, “You’re pulling my hair.”

In his findings, Myrdek wrote that although Wright’s resistance to arrest justified Provenza using force to detain her, his account of what transpired is outweighed by other data he collected.

“It is the opinion of this investigator that the injury to (Wright’s) left knee was caused by contact from some portion of Officer Provenza’s body to the back of (Wright’s) left knee,” the report said, noting that while Provenza denied making contact to Wright’s knees or legs, “yet she received a very serious injury.”

And despite Provenza’s denial he pulled Wright’s hair, Wright’s account is “supported by the statements from witnesses who heard her yelling to Provenza to stop pulling her hair,” the investigator wrote.

“This raises a question of Officer Provenza’s credibility during this investigation,” Myrdek continued, adding that the “amount of force used may not be accurately represented by Provenza.”

John Krupski, an attorney for Provenza, called the findings in the investigative report “unfounded” and said they present a distorted picture the encounter between his client and the “motorist.”

Provenza “has always been truthful throughout the multitude of investigations, interviews and court appearances,” Krupski said in an email to the Valley News on Wednesday.

“Trooper Samuel Provenza was cleared of any wrongdoing by two separate and independent investigations,” Krupski said, pointing out the complaint against his client was “not sustained” in the investigation’s findings.

“In this unfounded investigatory report, the investigator makes passing reference to the credibility of Provenza with no basis other than speculation and conjecture. This uninformed speculation was clearly not accepted, as Provenza was not charged or found to have been anything but credible,” Krupski said in his email.

Henry Klementowicz, ACLU of New Hampshire senior staff attorney, expressed satisfaction that the investigative report documents how Provenza’s use of force reasonably led to causing Wright’s knee injury but also said there are important questions concerning the police’s use of force that went unasked, let alone answered.

“No investigation appears to have occurred into what standard governs appropriate use of force per Canaan Police policy, i.e., whether if Provenza unreasonably yet unintentionally hit Eastman’s knee,” Klementowicz said via email.

The critical issue, Klementowicz raised, is why force is determined excessive only when it is used “intentionally.”

“Now that this report is public, it is reasonable to ask why no sustained finding was issued to Provenza — who the report concludes may have had a credibility issue during the investigation — or why the report assumes that only intentional excessive force can be sustained,” he said,

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.


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