A decade of police shootings in N.H. detailed

  • This still image from a Haverhill police officer’s body camera shows the encounter with Hagen Esty-Lennon. The town’s attorneys are calling for the videos to be released.

Monitor staff
Published: 6/12/2016 12:02:33 AM

Three years ago, Gus Bidwell called 911 to report that his son, 42-year-old Geoffrey Bidwell, was intoxicated and behaving suicidal. Sgt. Aaron Daigneault of the Mont Vernon Police Department responded to their Pond Road home and found the younger Bidwell inside with a small black folding knife. Daigneault ordered Bidwell to drop it, but Bidwell refused, urging the officer to shoot him instead.

Daigneault tried deploying his Taser, but it failed to connect. Bidwell grabbed a block of firewood and lurched foward with it raised. The officer responded with two shots from his pistol, hitting Bidwell once. 

“Sgt. Aaron Daigneault reasonably believed that he was in danger of death or serious bodily injury,” a report from state investigators later found – a conclusion that Gus Bidwell would later contest.

His son, who survived the exchange, was one of nearly three dozen people shot by law enforcement in New Hampshire over the past decade, almost all of them middle-age men in the southern half of the state, many dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues, according to a Monitor analysis.

The violence has of course cut both ways. Since 2005, 32 civilians and at least 10 police officers have been shot in both fatal and nonfatal encounters. Those incidents, catalogued by the paper in a new online database, represent some of the most harrowing and scrutinized moments in law enforcement. 

While the state investigates officer-involved shootings, the incidents are rarely if ever publicly tracked across years. Among the Monitor’s findings:

-- All but three of the civilians shot by police were men. Of those, the median age was 38.

-- Nearly all had previous contact with law enforcement.

-- Nearly two thirds of the civilians shot were killed, including all of the incidents in the west of Henniker.

-- More than a third of those shot were armed weapons or devices that could be used as a weapon, like a moving car.

-- Many had known or suspected mental illnesses, including depression.

-- All but three of the officer-involved shootings were deemed justified. The other three went undetermined.

-- 2011 and 2013 were the deadliest years for officer-involved use of deadly force, each with six. The least deadly years were 2007, 2009 and 2010. (None have been reported so far in 2016.)

-- Tasers were rarely deployed, and only occasionally effective when they were.

Police conduct has come under intense review in much of the country after a string of high-profile shootings that called attention to issues of race and mental health. New Hampshire, a predominantly white, rural state, has seen relatively little unrest. But it has not been immune to violence. 

Just last month, two Manchester patrolmen were shot and injured while trying to detain a burglary suspect, and a state trooper was temporarily stripped of his duties after pummelling a man in Nashua who appeared to have surrendered. The attorney general’s office has an open criminal investigation into the Nashua encounter.

The Monitor’s database includes only incidents where officers either used deadly force on a civilian, or were shot and killed in the line of duty. It excludes incidents in which officers were injured or wounded, since those are tracked by individual departments, according to law enforcement officials. It also misses the many times each year that police successfully defuse threats through non-lethal means.

On the same day the Manchester officers were shot last month, for instance, police in Laconia surrounded the home of Ernest Thompson, 32, after he allegedly fired a handgun into the ground and ordered his dogs to attack an officer serving a restraing order. A standoff ensued, but Thompson eventually surrendered and was taken into custody without incident, according to reports.

"We have thousands of interactions between police officers and people with mental health issues, or people without, and nobody gets killed,” noted Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin. “These cases,” he said of the shootings, “I think are the extreme.”

About a third of the civilians shot since 2005 had suspected or known mental illnesses, according to state and local media accounts. People like Clyde Gauntt, who was killed in 2006 after police found him trespassing in his mother’s house in Concord. Gauntt, who was known to be unstable and had a history of alcoholism, purportedly lunged with a knife at an officer, who fired twice in return.

Or Wayne Martin, who refused to leave his Concord apartment in 2011 after police came to take him to the state psychiatric hospital. Martin, who had schizophrenia and had reportedly stopped taking his medication, was fatally shot after he ran outside, charging at officers with a hatchet.

“The officers are downstream of the problem,” Strelzin said. “When they face that deadly force situation, they’ve typically got seconds to react…. You’ve got to help that person before they get to that point, where they’re out of control.” 

Yet some cities, like Portland, Ore., are testing alternative approaches to psychiatric escalations, training officers to collaborate more with mental health workers when they occur and to even disengage from some altogether. While police in New Hampshire have yet to go that far, some departments like Concord’s are consulting more with counselors in the field. Riverbend Community Mental Health, for one, launched a mobile crisis unit last fall in the city, and CEO Peter Evers said police are soliciting assistance more often when threats unfold.

“Usually as an officer you need to take control of the situation, and it’s that notion of making yourself big and taking control… that can sometimes be the worst thing you can be doing,” Evers said, adding that crisis counselors can help police determine when and when not to intervene. “My feeling,” he said, “is the more understanding we have of each other, the better we are at getting good results – of people not getting shot.”

Disengaging from a potential threat isn’t always an option, however. 

“We don’t have the luxury of running the other way,” said Lt. Tim O’Malley of the Concord police. “If we don’t at least contain the situation, what happens if (the person) runs into a house and takes a little kid hostage.”

“They’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t,” said Strelzin.

Stun guns and alternative projectiles are options is some cases, but not all. Tasers don’t always immobilize people, and things like rubber bullets and bean bag rounds can be lethal at close range.

The best approach, Strelzin said, is often just to try to calm people down – though it’s not always effective. That was the case in Keene in 2010 when Charles Turcotte broke into an ex-girlfriend’s home and held her hostage at knifepoint. When officers arrived, Turcotte declined to drop his weapon, explaining that he wanted five minutes alone with the woman. They said they were willing to let him speak with her if he let them handcuff him first. He refused, and the standoff ended lethally when an officer got off a clean shot.

“I actually thought it was pretty smart on their part,” Strelzin said of the attempt to negotiate. “But you’re dealing with someone who’s not rational.”

Other fatal encounters have proven more contentious. Like the failed sting in Weare three years ago, when two officers opened fire on a drug dealer as he sped off in his car, his girlfriend in the passenger seat. The officer who fired the fatal shot told investigators he feared for the second officer’s safety, but also acknowledged that he didn't know that officer’s exact location in relation to the car. While the attorney general’s office said it was unable to determine whether the shots had been justified, it was highly critical of the setup, noting that the department had no real plan going in, that some officers were sleep-deprived, and they should have called for backup from other agencies. 

Since the shooting, Weare has overhauled its police policies and equipped all patrol officers with body cameras.

Each department, in fact, has its own set of rules and procedures, deciding everything from when a pursuit is warranted to whether Tasers and rubber bullets are acceptable options in a crisis. All officers, however, are required to complete 24 hours of classroom and firearms training each year. Most exceed that, said Donald Vittum, head of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council. 

Vittum’s agency certifies every law enforcement officer in the state, including everyone from state troopers to sheriff’s deputies, prison guards and conservation officers. At the center of that training is the academy, which lasts four months and includes use-of-force simulations. Vittum said the academy has lengthened over the years, especially with the addition of a video simulator. The council also partners with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The number of officers certified in New Hampshire has grown in the past decade, up to 4,548 this year from 4,354 in 2006, according to the council.

Asked before last month’s Nashua encounter why New Hampshire hasn’t seen the same public outcry over police tactics as other states like Missouri and Maryland, Strelzin pointed to its high training standards and relatively rural setting, which he said helps people establish relationships with their police officers.

The state’s lack of diversity could be another factor, as race tensions have been at the heart of protest movements in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. In it’s reports on use-of-force in New Hampshire, the attorney general’s office does not identify race and ethnicity.

But those might not necessarily be the only factors at play.

“I think there’s some luck to it,” Evers said. “Tomorrow we could be having a conversation with one having happened.”

Click here for a map and description of a decade worth of police-involved shootings in New Hampshire. 

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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