NAACP plans investigation of New London Taser death

Donna Smith, center, is comforted by her nephew Kasi Fletcher, as Smith is overcome by emotions on the sidewalk in front of New London Police headquarters after the New London and CT NAACP held a press conference in front of the station Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, regarding the death of Smith's son Lashano Gilbert.

New London — Through fits of sobbing, the mother of a 31-year-old man who died while in New London police custody Saturday asked the question “Why?”

Lashano Gilbert, a native of the Bahamas, died following the second use of a Taser by police within an eight-hour period, precipitated by what police said was a violent struggle with officers in the holding cell area of police headquarters. Gilbert was taken into custody Friday evening on charges connected to an attempted carjacking.

Gilbert’s mother, Donna Smith, flew to the United States from her home in the Bahamas and joined with members of state and local chapters of the NAACP in front of the New London police station Tuesday to call for U.S. Justice Department involvement and oversight in an investigation of the events leading up to Gilbert’s death.

The cause of Gilbert’s death remains undetermined. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner awaits the results of toxicology tests.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, said his organization and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut plan to conduct their own investigation into the incident. Esdaile said Gilbert’s family filed a formal complaint with the NAACP alleging a violation of civil rights.

“There seems to be a dark cloud over the New London Police Department,” Esdaile said. “We have been here in New London far too many times.”

David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU, said Gilbert was at least the 15th person in Connecticut to die after being stunned with a police Taser. The ACLU helped push for legislation that will mandate police to compile more detailed information on the use of the electronic defense weapons.

“His death reminds us why these potentially lethal weapons should be used only when necessary,” McGuire said in a statement.

Esdaile said 12 of the 15 people who died were either black or Latino.

State police major crime detectives are investigating the incident and will pass over their findings to the New London State’s Attorney’s Office for review, according to state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. New London Acting Police Chief Peter Reichard said the department will simultaneously conduct its own internal investigation.

The investigation is expected to include the use of any video available. The department recently finished upgrading surveillance cameras in the department and in patrol vehicles. The new Tasers carried by a majority of the officers also record audio and video, Reichard said.

The chain of events leading to Gilbert’s death started Friday evening, when police said Gilbert jumped into the open window of a car at Williams and Broad streets. He appeared to be in an altered state, speaking in a bizarre manner and motioning as if he were attempting to stab the driver, police said.

Police used a Taser on him during the struggle to get him in custody.

He was taken to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, where the Taser’s probes were removed. He was medically cleared and returned to police custody.

Early Saturday morning, police said, an officer entered Gilbert’s holding cell because Gilbert had removed his pants and appeared to be twisting them as if to make a rope.

Police said Gilbert pushed away officers from the open cell door and escaped into a booking area, threw objects at officers and grabbed a female officer in a headlock. He also bit an officer several times on her foot and ankle while police tried to handcuff him.

Police ultimately used a Taser on him. He suffered a medical condition on his way to the hospital, according to police, and died.

Smith, comforted by family members, said the events police describe are not those of the son she knew. Gilbert, she said, obtained a medical degree in Cuba, spoke three languages and was furthering his medical studies in Canada before his surprise visit to his aunt’s home in New London last week.

“I don’t know who that is they’re talking about. That’s not my son,” Smith said.

Esdaile said New London police have been the subject of numerous complaints in the past, including the case of Lance Goode, who alleges police planted drugs during his arrest in 2012. Esdaile also points to the department as the last in the state in complying with new stricter racial profiling laws.

“We have asked the U.S. Justice Department to come down here several times to investigate corruption at the New London Police Department,” he said.

To date, Esdaile said, the calls for investigations have “fallen on deaf ears.”

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said the death was concerning but he is confident a full and fair investigation is under way and declined to make a judgment or comment concerning the incident until the findings of the investigation are revealed.

Finizio said he has fully supported the department’s efforts to upgrade cameras and pushed for more cameras overlooking downtown, a tool he said can only help to “exonerate officers who are doing their jobs properly.”

Gilbert’s family said they remain in disbelief that the life of a man so smart and accomplished could end so quickly.

“I still don’t believe it,” said Kasi Fletcher of New London, Gilbert’s cousin. “We’re all still in shock.”

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

Donna Smith, center, is comforted by her family and friends as Smith is overcome by emotions on the sidewalk in front of New London Police headquarters during a press conference by the New London and CT NAACP in front of the station Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, regarding the death of Smith's son Lashano Gilbert.
Donna Smith, center, is comforted by her family and friends as Smith is overcome by emotions on the sidewalk in front of New London Police headquarters during a press conference by the New London and CT NAACP in front of the station Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, regarding the death of Smith's son Lashano Gilbert.
A handout photo of Lashano Gilbert before a NAACP press conference in front of the New London Police Department Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014,  regarding the Gilbert's death after New London Police used a Taser on Gilbert to subdue him during an extended struggle in the lockup at New London Police Headquarters early Saturday morning.
A handout photo of Lashano Gilbert before a NAACP press conference in front of the New London Police Department Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, regarding the Gilbert's death after New London Police used a Taser on Gilbert to subdue him during an extended struggle in the lockup at New London Police Headquarters early Saturday morning.

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