Report: New London police officer made ‘poor decision' in shooting

New London — A "poor decision" to shoot an unarmed suspect in a truck theft multiple times in August led to the March 22 firing of city police Officer Thomas Northup, according to an internal investigation completed by New London police Capt. Steven Crowley.

The Feb. 27 report, requested last month by The Day, found that the shooting of Curtis Cunningham, who is now paralyzed, was excessive, unreasonable and a premature and unauthorized decision to use deadly force.

Northup shot Cunningham after Cunningham, who was 27 at the time, allegedly stole and crashed an ice truck at the intersection of Bank Street and Jefferson Avenue on Aug. 24.

Cunningham has since filed a lawsuit against the city and Northup, who was with the department for four years.

Crowley found Northup violated the department's general use of force and use of deadly force and recommended he be terminated.

In his statement, Northup said he was on an unrelated assignment at a nearby drug store when he heard a radio transmission alerting officers to an ice truck stolen from Montauk Avenue. He saw the truck in question stopped at a stop light at Ocean Avenue and Bank Street.

Northup said he approached the truck and ordered the driver to stop "by putting his left hand up in a stop motion and had his right hand on his weapon in a master grip."

The driver drove away and crashed while attempting a quick left turn onto Jefferson Avenue.

Northup approached the truck, yelling for the driver to keep his hands up. Officer Jeffrey Nichols arrived as backup, the statement says, and climbed onto the top of the truck, which at that point was lying on its side.

The officers attempted to remove Cunningham from inside the truck, yelling for Cunningham to show his hands, before Northup became "alarmed or concerned" that the driver was moving around and possibly looking for a way to escape.

Northup said Cunningham put his hands toward his waistline, where people are known to keep guns.

Northup "perceived an imminent threat of deadly force." He fired his weapon twice through the truck's windshield, yelling for Cunningham to drop the weapon, but Northup said Cunningham continued to turn toward him.

Northup "still perceived an imminent threat" and fired his gun three more times. Four of the five shots hit Cunningham.

In a subsequent interview with Crowley, Northup said he had "to defend Officer Nichols, myself and the public."

Northup said in that interview that he never saw Cunningham with a weapon and that he "refused to move himself out of the direct line of fire with the suspect or take cover for protection."

Crowley determined that Northup was not in imminent danger and used "excessive and unreasonable" force, especially given that "there was a physical barrier between Curtis Cunningham and officers Northup and Nichols, which prevented him from escaping him or physically assaulting (the) officers."

Northup's use of deadly force also was a violation of the department's orders, Crowley wrote, because his life was never in jeopardy.

"Officer Northup's tactics in this incident are in direct contrast of what officers are trained for by the department," the report reads.

His "lack of proper use of tactics and his failure to properly evaluate the actual threat forced him to make a poor decision and fire his weapon," the report reads.

Northup had a pre-disciplinary hearing March 22 to discuss the report, after which he was fired by Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.

The city's police union, representatives of which were present at the hearing, has since filed a grievance on Northup's behalf.

New London State's Attorney Michael L. Regan said Monday that state police, at his request, investigated the shooting and filed a report with his office. Regan said he is reviewing it to determine whether Northup should be prosecuted for violating any state laws.

Northup was put on paid administrative leave while the state police investigated the incident, New London police Chief Margaret Ackley said in an email. He was later assigned to administrative duty at the station.

The department's own internal investigation could not begin until the state police investigation was completed, Ackley said.

Joel Faxon, Cunningham's attorney, said medical bills for Cunningham, now a "thoracic paraplegic" — or paralyzed from the mid-back down — could amount to at least $12 million.

"It's insane (Northup) would shoot a gun into a vehicle like that, insane," Faxon said.

Faxon said Northup's dismissal strengthens Cunningham's case.

"There was an unauthorized excessive use of force and that's the standard for a civil rights violation under the Fourth Amendment," he said.

The city itself is responsible for the shooting as well, Faxon said, because Northup never should have been hired.

Northup was hired Jan. 25, 2008, but was injured in October of the same year during routine military training and was out of work until Sept. 8, 2010, according to the city's personnel records. He then went through police academy retraining from October 2010 to March 2011. The shooting occurred five months later.

Northup has no commendations, awards or disciplinary actions in his personnel file, according to the mayor's office.

Faxon said Northup, who lives in Westerly, applied to the Stonington Police Department in 2001 but was ultimately not hired there. Faxon said he requested documents from Northup's personnel file in Stonington.

In those documents, which Faxon shared with The Day, were three responses from Northup's neighbors as part of a "neighborhood canvass" during the hiring process. One neighbor recommended Northup as an officer but two others had negative things to say.

A neighbor said Northup once posed as a police officer and threatened to arrest a neighbor's child.

"You would probably have a lawsuit on your hands if you hired him," the neighbor said. "He told the kids once he had a 9 mm and don't make him use it."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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