N.H. Towns Pay Millions To Settle Claims Against Police; Details Often Hidden From Public
Around midnight on a Saturday, Thomas Hurd fell asleep at the bar of a Chinese restaurant in Farmington, New Hampshire.
The bartender, suspecting Hurd was drunk when he got there, asked him to leave. According to police reports, Hurd instead began smashing plates and flipping tables.
When a Farmington police officer found Hurd, he was teetering in the parking lot of a nearby Cumberland Farms convenience store, a bottle of Absolut vodka in his hoodie pocket.
Officer Sean Owen, along with a police officer from a neighboring town, asked Hurd to place his hands on the rear of the police cruiser. Hurd resisted, yelling obscenities, according to the police report.
Dashcam video of the incident shows Officer Owen then slamming Hurd against the trunk of the cruiser. He steps back, and fires his Taser into Hurd’s back. Hurd crumples.
After recovering from the shock, Hurd stands up briefly, before Owen shocks him a second time with the Taser.
Watch: Dashcam footage taken on March, 28, 2014 in Farmington, N.H.
Hurd collapses, hits his head on the pavement and lays bleeding, unconscious. The officers take him into custody and charge him with five misdemeanors, including resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
When the county prosecutor reviewed the video in preparation for Hurd’s trial, he was alarmed by Officer Owen’s use of force: how quicky the encounter turned physical, with Hurd tased twice in a matter of seconds. The Farmington police chief also expressed concern about what he saw in the video, prompting a review by the New Hampshire Attorney General. In a 49-page report, the A.G. concluded that there was no clear justification for the second firing of the Taser, but not enough evidence to charge Owen with a crime.
Seven months later, the Town of Farmington, through its insurer, quietly paid Hurd $24,500 in exchange for his promise not to file a lawsuit. The settlement agreement, along with the Attorney General’s investigation into the incident, were never released publicly.
Farmington’s payout is one of 87 legal settlements agreed to by municipalities in New Hampshire following allegations of civil rights violations by police officers between 2010 and this year. The settlements cover a range of allegations, from the shooting deaths of citizens by police, to the use of excessive force during a chaotic arrest in Nashua, to police officers in small towns improperly detaining citizens.
In total, these settlements ultimately cost taxpayers a total of more than $4.35 million.
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The findings come from a review of settlements involving law enforcement obtained by NHPR through more than 230 public records requests, submitted to every town, city and county in New Hampshire. With no centralized system for recording settlements, this is believed to be the first comprehensive look at how often law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire settle allegations such as excessive force, wrongful arrest, sexual harassment, and racial profiling.
The release of these records comes as the country—and the state—grapple with questions of police brutality and systemic racism. In New Hampshire, a new commission created in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is looking into police training, bias, and misconduct.
Legal settlements are not an admission of guilt. Instead, these agreements are a way to “buy the peace” between parties and avoid potentially lengthy litigation. Municipalities and their insurers may agree to settle a case based on a financial calculation of the costs of litigation, even in cases where they don’t believe the allegation has merit.
The settlement documents themselves, often just a few pages long, contain little information about the incidents in question, and don’t always identify the officers involved in the matter.
Many of these settlements—including Farmington’s payout to Thomas Hurd—appear to have never been disclosed to the public. However, all of these documents are public records under New Hampshire’s Right to Know law.
Nearly half of these settlements are further shielded from public scrutiny by containing non-disclosure clauses prohibiting the plaintiff from commenting on the agreement or the allegations of wrongdoing by law enforcement.
These non-disclosure clauses, along with the fact that municipalities often choose not to publicly notify residents of the payouts, create a system in which alleged civil rights abuses by law enforcement officials may receive little public scrutiny.
“You kind of have a perfect storm of factors that create an environment that isn’t conducive to full government accountability and transparency,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire. “The public may not really ever get a full picture as to what transpired with respect to an incident, a police officer and a police department.”
Compensate & Deter
By their nature, these settlement documents, full of legal jargon and references to various state statutes, don’t provide that full picture of the event in question. None of settlements contain demographic data, for instance, making it difficult to conclude how often these cases center on claims of racial, gender or other discrimination.
The settlements do often contain a reference to a case number, however, making it possible to piece together the alleged facts through other legal documents.
In 2014, the town of Salem paid a Latino man $10,000 after he alleged in a federal lawsuit that Officer Nicholas Turner unholstered his weapon and pointed it at him after he requested directions.
The lawsuit claimed that Turner was “motivated by [the] plaintiff’s race, color and national origin.”
A second lawsuit against Salem alleged that in 2009, Officer Chad Clark tackled, beat and kicked a young Black man outside of a party. Along with the allegations of excessive force, the man alleged in his lawsuit that Clark made racially offensive remarks, including bragging that “he had taken care of that Jimmy [sic] Hendrix guy.” In 2011, Salem, through its insurer, paid the man $35,000 in exchange for his agreement to drop a federal lawsuit.
At least two settlements--one in Exeter, one in Northwood--stem from local police allegedly detaining people on suspected immigration violations, despite lacking probable cause as required by law.
Julian Jefferson, a staff attorney for the New Hampshire Public Defenders and a member of the newly formed Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, told NHPR these settlements raise concerns about racial profiling and excessive force.
Jefferson believes the state would benefit from the creation of an independent oversight body, including members of the public, to review allegations of misconduct, such as those put forward in many of these complaints. He said such a review panel would bring more attention to what police misconduct looks like in New Hampshire, and how often it occurs.
“We need to come up with policies to help mitigate against something as tragic as a George Floyd murder happening in New Hampshire,” said Jefferson. “We should not feel complacent that that would never happen here in New Hampshire. We need to zealously guard against that happening.”
Opportunity for Reform
Of the 87 settlements reviewed by NHPR, the largest payout in the previous decade involved the killing of a woman in Manchester following a police pursuit. In 2017, the family of Wendy Lawrence received $750,000 after a state police officer shot her through her windshield.
In 2014, the town of Weare paid $300,000 to the family of Alex Jose Cora de Jesus, who was shot and killed during a drug bust that the Attorney General would later investigate and describe as carried out “without proper planning, training or manpower.”
Weare settled six other allegations in the time frame for which NHPR requested records, bringing the town’s total cost of alleged police civil rights violations to $458,000. In response to a Right to Know request, Portsmouth provided six settlements totalling $507,500. Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, has settled 13 cases, paying out $823,000.
The smallest settlement paid out since 2010 in New Hampshire was for just $500, a result of the Wilton Police mistakenly arresting a man who had the same name as his son following a traffic accident.
The town of Durham settled cases stemming from three different incidents over the previous decade, totalling $105,500.
Durham Police Chief Dave Kurz, who retired last week after 24 years in the position, said he believes his officers acted appropriately in two of the three cases, but that the town’s insurer, Primex, ultimately made a “business decision” to settle the suits.
“As best as we can try to manage our organization in Durham, we are going to have an error, we are going to do something that someone doesn’t like, and we’ve got to own up to that as an organization with a strong moral compass and do the best we can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Kurz.
In 2016, Durham paid a man $40,000 in exchange for his agreement not to file a lawsuit. In March of that year, a police officer had used a Taser on the man after alleging he resisted arrest.
Chief Kurz believes his officer acted appropriately during that interaction. Still, he said he used video of the arrest as a training tool for his other officers.
“In the aftermath of these incidents, specifically the Taser instance, there is a critique,” said Kurz. “From that, we come up with things that we could have done to enhance what the officers did do, and hopefully make sure they are safe, and the people who we are arresting and resisting are also safe.”
Due to the secretive nature of these settlements, it’s unclear how often they result in a thorough review by local police departments.
Advocates for police accountability stress that many civil lawsuits filed against departments are not solely to obtain compensation for clients, but are also aimed at spurring law enforcement to review policies and, when necessary, change protocols.
“I’ve found that in many cases, the city attorney will defend the case and the money will be paid out of central funds, and the police department does very little to analyze the information from that lawsuit, and try to learn how to do better,” said professor Joanna Schwartz, who teaches a class called ‘Suing the Police’ at UCLA School of Law. “And this is something that strikes me as a great loss.”
Wide Range of Claims
While some settlements received media coverage, many payments appear to have been made with little publicity.
In 2014, the Keene Police Department issued a press release announcing the arrest of a Keene State College student for allegedly filing a false rape claim. The Keene Sentinel, as well as the college’s student newspaper, wrote about the arrest and included the student’s mugshot.
After the criminal case ended without a conviction, the student, who NHPR is declining to name because she maintains she was a victim of sexual assault, filed a civil lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution by the Keene Police Department. Keene ultimately settled the case for $100,000; however the settlement doesn’t appear to have garnered any media attention at the time, and the agreement contains a non-disclosure clause.
Other settlements, however, have been well documented in the press. The Union Leader has reported on issues within the Salem Police Department, which has settled eight cases in recent years costing taxpayers $228,500.
Chris Micklovich received $200,000 from Manchester in exchange for dropping a federal lawsuit alleging off-duty police officers beat him outside of the Strange Brew Tavern. The four officers involved in the highly publicized incident were cleared of any criminal charges by the Attorney General.
In 2012, Manchester paid $38,000 to a man who alleged in a civil lawsuit that during an arrest on Elm Street, he was kicked in the head by a police horse. The man suffered a “severe head injury,” according to his complaint, and was rendered unconscious for hours after the incident.
Following allegations that two Manchester police officers tried to coerce sexual favors from a woman, she received a $45,000 settlement in 2018. The county attorney declined to bring charges against the two officers, who were fired for their actions.
In New London, the town agreed to pay a Colby-Sawyer College student $70,000 after she was allegedly propositioned by the police chief to provide nude photos in exchange for him dropping an underaged drinking charge.
In 2011, Loudon agreed to settle a civil lawsuit for $15,000 involving an 18-year old woman who claimed she was attacked by a police dog and then subjected to taunts and comments on her appearance.
Another high profile settlement involved Jeffrey Pendleton, a resident of Nashua who was arrested in 2014 for trespassing in a public area near the library. Pendleton spent more than a month in jail, unable to pay cash bail set at $100.
The ACLU highlighted his case as a violation of Pendleton’s First Amendment rights, ultimately settling the dispute with the city for $15,000. (Pendleton would later die in a Manchester jail cell while awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge, garnering national attention.)
Gilles Bissonnette of the ACLU, who represented Pendleton as well as Bob Frese, an Exeter man who received a $17,500 settlement after police arrested him for posting online statements criticizing an officer, said his organization works to publicize settlement agreements to call attention to issues in law enforcement.
He also questioned if non-disclosure clauses in settlements involving law enforcement are constitutional, pointing to a recent ruling in a U.S. Circuit Court that found the city of Baltimore’s use of such clauses violated the law.
He said plaintiffs should be able to discuss their cases with no fear of retribution, as “it helps the public learn more about police behavior.”
Bissonnette also said municipalities should notify their residents when a settlement is reached, rather than quietly file the documents away.
“Certainly the settlement agreements are available in the clerk's office, but what good does that do, if no one knows that the settlement agreement ever exists?” he said.
Editor’s note: This story includes dashcam video taken during the 2014 arrest of a Farmington man that is at the center of a settlement between the man, Thomas Hurd, and the town of Farmington. We included the video as an example of the kind of police behavior that has spurred settlements between New Hampshire law enforcement and citizens claiming misconduct over the past decade. It’s also an example of the kind of police interactions that are kept out of the public eye, given the often secretive nature of misconduct settlements and accompanying non-disclosure agreements.
While police reports and an investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General describe the footage in the video, we felt that by allowing members of the public to see the video themselves, they could more fully understand the incident in question. For these reasons, we felt the video, while disturbing, added important context to the broader story of police settlements in the state.
The video is a public record, obtained by NHPR through a Right To Know request. Mr. Hurd, through his attorney, raised no objection to its release.