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24 Jul, 2014 20:04

Two NH cops fired for excessive force against prisoner

Two police officers who used excessive force against a prisoner in 2009 have been fired. Two others have been punished as well. The Seabrook, NH incident was caught on camera and the video was released by the victim in January 2014.

Michael Bergeron posted the video to YouTube, which depicts cops from the small New England town slamming a local man face-first into a cinder block wall as they attempt to move him down the corridor of a jail facility. A surveillance camera near the scene of the incident also caught one officer discharging his pepper-spray at the man while he is on the ground and just barely out of sight. Bergeron, who was 19 at the time of the incident, wrote in the video description that he was the prisoner who was attacked.

According to the New Hampshire man, the footage of November 2009 incident was uncovered by attorney he hired two years ago after the altercation but ultimately “disappeared” until just before he posted it. Bergeron said he was in police custody at the time of the incident after being arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Seabrook officials announced that Officers Mark Richardson and Adam Laurent were fired following a four-month-long internal investigation. Richardson pushed Bergeron into the wall, while Laurent pepper-sprayed him. A third officer, Keith Dietenhofer, was suspended for two days without pay for inconsistencies in his reports and failing to notify superiors of the incident. A fourth, Lieutenant John Wasson, was demoted to patrolman due to supervisory failures.

"It's a dark cloud over us," Chief Lee Bitomske said at a press conference held by the town. "In my 33 years on the department this is the most severe disciplinary action that's ever been taken at one time."

Richardson was also indicted by a grand jury in April on one count of simple assault for the incident. He will face trial in November, and could receive a maximum sentence of two-to-five years in jail and a $4,000 fine if he is convicted, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

The internal review, carried out by a contractor, concluded that the officers used excessive force, the use of pepper spray was not called for by the situation and that Bergeron was not posing an imminent threat to the officers at the time.

"No chief wants something like this to happen on his watch or any of the discipline that comes down," Bitomske said. "We're a family, as everybody knows, and it's tough, but we move ahead."

Bergeron’s mother, Joyce Bergeron, told reporters that her son had requested the video of the incident in 2010, and that he posted it in frustration over the fact that he didn’t receive the video until several years later.

“Michael did this because he didn't want someone to get hurt," she said. "And like he said, he never would've forgiven himself had something really bad happened to somebody, and it ate at him for three years."

The victim’s mother also thanked town officials for their actions in investigating the case. Municipal Resources, the contractor who conducted the review, also praised the handling of the case once the video was posted online.

“In reviewing this situation… it is apparent that the handling of this matter since it became known to the department administration on January 6, 2014, has been handled in an exemplary manner,” the company wrote in its report.

Bitomske said the police department will begin overhauling "100 or some odd policies" regarding training, use of force, the dissemination of surveillance footage requested during a trial’s discovery period and other procedures.

"We will never tolerate that kind of conduct in this town," Joe McKittrick, an attorney representing Seabrook, said at the Wednesday press conference.

Union officials said they will fight the punishments meted out to Richardson, Laurent and Wasson, Seacoast Online reported. Dietenhofer will not appeal his suspension, Town Manager Bill Manzi said.

Bergeron, now 23, was convicted of burglary in April, and received a sentence of one-to-three years in prison. He was also convicted of an unrelated misdemeanor simple assault and sentenced to 12 months in jail for that case, according to Seacoast Online.