Conn. cops killed 24 since 2013

Pros­e­cu­tors found each shoot­ing jus­ti­fied; ex­perts ques­tion state’s sys­tem of re­view­ing in­ci­dents

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Zach Mur­dock

DAN­BURY — Con­necti­cut po­lice of­fi­cers have shot and killed two dozen peo­ple in in­ci­dents across the state since the start of 2013. None of those of­fi­cers have faced charges for their ac­tions.

Af­ter each in­ci­dent and months or even years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, state pros­e­cu­tors have con­cluded that ev­ery of­fi­cer who pulled the trig­ger in those cases was jus­ti­fied, ac­cord­ing to a Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia anal­y­sis of state re­ports.

Ex­perts and law en­force- ment sources pre­dict in­ves­ti­ga­tors will come to the same con­clu­sion about the death of 45-year-old Paul Ar­bitelle, who just be­fore the new year be­came the most re­cent per­son to be fa­tally shot by the po­lice in Con­necti­cut.

But that fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion still could be months away, dur­ing which de­tails of the in­ci­dent will be with­held from the pub­lic amid the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Last week, city of­fi­cials de­nied a NewsTimes pub­lic records re­quest for squad car and body cam­era footage from the in­ci­dent, cit­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to State Po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors last week, Dan­bury Po­lice Of­fi­cer Alex Re­lyea shot a knife-wield­ing Ar­bitelle three times dur­ing a brief con­fronta­tion. Of­fi­cer Regina Guss also was at the scene of the Dec. 29 shoot­ing, but she did not fire her hand­gun, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

The shoot­ing in Dan­bury and an­other po­lice shoot­ing last week in New Haven, which has left one man in crit­i­cal but sta­ble con­di­tion, have put the spot­light on how of­ten Con­necti­cut of­fi­cers fire on sus­pects and the lengthy re­view process for such in­ci­dents.

In the 24 fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing cases since 2013, more than 14 months elapsed on av­er­age from the time of the in­ci­dent to the date of in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ fi­nal pub­lic re­port, ac­cord­ing to the Hearst anal­y­sis. Sev­eral took a few weeks or months, but just as many took two to three years.

The length of those in­ves­ti­ga­tions and the unan­i­mous de­ci­sions in fa­vor of cops’ ac­tions high­lights con­cerns both crim­i­nal jus­tice ad­vo­cates and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have with the state’s sys­tem of re­view­ing the most con­se­quen­tial de­ci­sions of­fi­cers make.

Dur­ing the state’s re­view, Dan­bury Mayor Mark Boughton and Po­lice Chief Pa­trick Ri­den­hour are not sup­posed to dis­cuss de­tails of the Ar­bitelle in­ci­dent, much to their cha­grin, both have said re­peat­edly.

But ad­vo­cates ar­gue tim­ing is only part of the prob­lem and these

in­ci­dents should be re­viewed by an in­de­pen­dent agency.

“Re­gard­less of what hap­pened or who the dece­dent was, ev­ery­one has an in­ter­est in whether we have a sys­tem in place to re­li­ably and trans­par­ently tell whether some­thing went wrong here,” said Dan Barrett, the le­gal di­rec­tor of ACLU Con­necti­cut. “I think we all agree it should not be rou­tine that mu­nic­i­pal em­ploy­ees dole out the death penalty.”

‘Rel­a­tively rare’

For­mer New Mil­ford po­lice of­fi­cer Scott Smith was the first po­lice of­fi­cer in Con­necti­cut to be tried for the killing of a sus­pect on duty af­ter the 1998 fa­tal shoot­ing of 19-year-old Franklyn Reid.

Smith even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to a mis­de­meanor charge of crim­i­nally neg­li­gent homi­cide af­ter courts over­turned a jury’s de­ci­sion to con­vict him of first-de­gree man­slaugh­ter.

For­mer Hart­ford of­fi­cer Robert Lawlor was charged af­ter a 2005 shoot­ing that killed 18-year-old Jashon Bryant and wounded an­other man, but a jury ac­quit­ted Lawlor in 2009.

Ar­bitelle’s death in Dan­bury is be­lieved to be the first on-duty po­lice shoot­ing in the city in more than 20 years.

It was one of only two fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings in 2018 but fol­lowed six fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings across the state in 2017, in­clud­ing the death of Ko­stati­nos Sfae­los in New Mil­ford and the high-pro­file death of Jayson Ne­gron in Bridge­port.

There were nine fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings in 2013, in­clud­ing the death of John Val­luzzo in Ridge­field.

De­spite those num­bers and re­cent years’ me­dia and com­mu­nity fo­cus on such in­ci­dents na­tion­wide, fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings re­main un­com­mon, said John De­Carlo, a pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nal jus­tice at the Uni­ver­sity of New Haven and the for­mer Bran­ford po­lice chief.

They are a tiny per­cent- age of the thou­sands of con­tacts the pub­lic has ev­ery day with the about 9,200 po­lice of­fi­cers and troop­ers across the state, he said.

“It’s sta­tis­ti­cally rel­a­tively rare, if you do the math,” De­Carlo said. “It’s in­fin­i­tes­i­mal and the num­ber of wrong­ful shoot­ings is even more in­fin­i­tes­i­mal. That doesn’t ex­cuse bad po­lice work, but it is very rare.”

When of­fi­cers do shoot at a sus­pect, state po­lice are called in to take over the scene and be­gin an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ci­dent.

State’s at­tor­neys from an­other ju­ris­dic­tion than the depart­ment in­volved are then asked to re­view the case and de­ter­mine whether the of­fi­cer or of­fi­cers who fired dur­ing the in­ci­dent were jus­ti­fied in us­ing “deadly phys­i­cal force,” in ac­cor­dance with a set of state laws out­lin­ing the process.

That ex­act pro­ce­dure has taken place in the Dan­bury and New Haven in­ci­dents.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors then re­view ev­i­dence and tes­ti­mony, from in­ter­views and re­con­struc­tions from of­fi­cers and wit­nesses to med­i­cal re­ports to body cam­era and sur­veil­lance footage. That process of­ten takes weeks and months to com­plete.

It took the of­fice of State’s At­tor­ney Brian Pre­leski more than 10 months last year — shorter than the state av­er­age — to de­ter­mine in De­cem­ber that East Hart­ford of­fi­cers were jus­ti­fied in the Fe­bru­ary shoot­ing death of Juan McCray af­ter a high-speed chase. In that case, Pre­leski specif­i­cally noted that it wasn’t un­til the end of Novem­ber that a lo­cal po­lice re­port was fi­nally com­pleted and could be in­cluded in the re­port.

State’s At­tor­ney Stephen Se­den­sky said Fri­day that pros­e­cu­tors must bal­ance be­tween re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion that could taint a po­ten­tial court case and con­clud­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in a timely man­ner for the po­lice, vic­tims’ fam­i­lies and pub­lic. In De­cem­ber, about 16 months af­ter the in­ci­dent, his of­fice re­leased its re­port rul­ing an of­fi­cer’s fa­tal shoot­ing of Sfae­los in New Mil­ford should not be pros­e­cuted.

“We have an obli­ga­tion un­der the rules of prac­tice for at­tor­neys, as pros­e­cu­tors, to not talk about things that may be­come a court case that could then jeop­ar­dize some­thing in that case,” Se­den­sky said.

‘Ob­vi­ous de­fi­ciency’

Dur­ing these state in­ves­ti­ga­tions, how­ever, state po­lice and lo­cal of­fi­cials lock down de­tails of these in­ci­dents un­til a fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion is made.

“I was al­ways of the opin­ion a PD (po­lice depart­ment) should be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble,” De­Carlo said. “But I found very quickly as po­lice chief that I did not al­ways have the lux­ury of trans­parency once an agency like the state’s at­tor­ney came in, be­cause they very of­ten said, ‘You can’t give out any in­for­ma­tion, this is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion now.’ ”

“Cops act in a mo­ment ... and in­ves­ti­ga­tors af­ter the fact are in a sit­u­a­tion where they do not have those de­mands put on them,” he said. “They have that lux­ury of time and hind­sight, and it should be that way.”

State po­lice have re­leased an out­line of what oc­curred

out­side the Glen Apart­ments in Dan­bury on Dec. 29, but it was neigh­bors who filled in the fuller pic­ture of who was in­volved in the in­ci­dent and how of­fi­cers en­coun­tered Ar­bitelle that evening.

State po­lice have de­clined to re­lease more in­for­ma­tion, cit­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

When pros­e­cu­tors and of­fi­cials with­hold de­tails and fre­quently take more than a year to com­plete their in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the pub­lic loses its al­ready thin abil­ity to hold law en­force­ment ac­count­able, Barrett said.

“The most ob­vi­ous de­fi­ciency is that there’s no dead­line,” Barrett said. “There are a lot of prob­lems with this sys­tem, but tim­ing­wise, that’s the most ob­vi­ous. There’s no tim­ing re­quire­ment so they’re al­lowed to do what­ever they want.”

Fur­ther­more, the state does not re­quire po­lice de­part­ments to sub­mit “use of force” re­ports to a cen­tral data­base on in­stances when of­fi­cers draw their weapons, let alone shoot and kill some­one, said Cen­tral Con­necti­cut State Uni­ver­sity re­searcher Ken Barone, who man­ages the Con­necti­cut Racial Pro­fil­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion Project. He helps ex­am­ine racial bias in po­lice traf­fic stops across the state.

Such re­ports — like those re­quired when of­fi­cers threaten or use a stun gun — would pro­vide de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion about how of­ten of­fi­cers use force and who is on the re­ceiv­ing end.

With­out that in­for­ma­tion, ad­vo­cates like the ACLU and aca­demics like Barone can­not study spe­cific data about whether peo­ple of color are dis­pro­por­tion­ately the tar­gets of po­lice force, as they be­lieve from anec­do­tal study.

The lack of avail­able data, lengthy time­lines for in­ves­ti­ga­tions and over­whelm­ing de­ci­sions in fa­vor of of­fi­cers make crim­i­nal jus­tice ad­vo­cates skep­ti­cal the sys­tem of po­lice over­sight can be trusted.

“Every­body has an equal share in wor­ry­ing about the out­come of these in­ci­dents,” Barrett said. “It may be pos­si­ble in Con­necti­cut to kill some­one and have no reper­cus­sions at all, not even ad­di­tional train­ing.”

On Dec. 29, Dan­bury Pol­lice Of­fi­cer Alex Re­lyea shot and killed 45-year-old Paul Ar­bitelle, state po­lice said last week.

For­mer New Mil­ford po­lice of­fi­cer Scott Smith, the first po­lice of­fi­cer in Con­necti­cut to be charged with mur­der in the killing of a sus­pect while on duty, even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to a mis­de­meanor charge of crim­i­nally neg­li­gent homi­cide af­ter courts over­turned his con­vic­tion on first-de­gree man­slaugh­ter. Smith died in 2013.

Ar­bitelle

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