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A review of police use-of-force policies and complaints in southeastern Connecticut

More than ever, the public is demanding restraint and civility from the men and women who take an oath to protect and serve us.

In the past week, as Black Lives Matter protests continued in southeastern Connecticut and nationwide following the death of George Floyd, The Day filed Freedom of Information requests with nine area departments for civilian complaints and use-of-force reports for the past two years. 

The region's police departments vary in size and structure, and the communities they serve range from rural to urban. Some of the departments have civilian review boards or police commissions. Shootings and other deadly use of force are rare and are investigated by outside agencies and prosecutors.

As of Friday afternoon, New London and Norwich police, both city departments under close scrutiny by the NAACP, provided preliminary information. Groton Town and Groton City police, who said they were preparing for a Black Lives Matter protest Sunday, provided partial responses.

Three of the smaller, suburban police departments — East Lyme, Ledyard and Stonington — complied with The Day's requests. 

Montville police, a municipal force overseen by the state police, said it would work on providing the information. The Day has not yet requested information of Old Lyme, a small police force also overseen by state police.

Waterford police said the request has been sent to the town attorney for review and the department was gathering the information necessary to comply.

Officers are required to file reports on use of force every time an officer uses their hands or a weapon to control a suspect. The reports are submitted annually to the state.

The civilian complaint process is available to those who want to report misconduct of officers. Departments are required to make complaint forms easily available to the public, thoroughly investigate them and communicate the findings of complaints. If unsatisfied, the person can sue.

New London

City police have been accused of "institutional racism" by attorney Jacques Parenteau, who is representing Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers, an African American, in a legal action claiming Rodgers was unjustly suspended for 20 days after punching a handcuffed prisoner in April 2019 in the booking area of the Waterford Police Department. An internal investigation by the New London Police Department into the matter determined Rodgers' use of force was unjustified given the circumstances.

Rodgers, who says he punched the man in defense of himself and another officer, because he thought the man had a knife, claims he was investigated more intensively and punished more harshly than white officers, including union President Todd Lynch, a white man who was recently cleared in a use-of-force investigation conducted by the union's vice president, Officer Charles Flynn, after striking a prisoner twice in the face.

The city has hired an outside investigator to look into Rodgers' claims, and Parenteau said Rodgers intends to file a lawsuit after the case is reviewed by the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

On Friday, Parenteau wrote to Mayor Michael Passero alleging Lynch attempted to bypass Rodgers for approval of an arrest report just this past week, taking it instead to a white sergeant.

"If the New London Police Department is unable to police itself on the issue of race, how will it ever be able to be a police force that can effectively deal with race relations in the community?" said the letter, copied to NAACP officials.

Since 2018, the New London Police Department has taken approximately 160 reports of use of force, ranging from soft-hand control to use of a baton.

The records showed that there were approximately 61 reports of use of force in 2017, 46 in 2018 and 52 in 2019.

Chief Peter Reichard said that police have not discharged a firearm at a person since 2015. He said that stun guns are deployed 20 to 30 times a year in New London, on average, and in most of those instances the stun gun isn't actually used — merely the show of it is effective in subduing a subject.

In 2015, NLPD enacted new use-of-force policies, constructed by a law firm that specializes in the issue. The policies require officers to report every instance of use of force, defined as any force that is more intense than handcuffing a person who is not resisting.

Reichard said that after enacting the new policy, they realized their reporting of use of force "wasn't that strong" and the city saw an uptick in use-of-force reports filed in 2015. Before that, he said, the city had been underreporting.

In New London, civilian complaints must be made in writing within 10 days after the incident or 10 days after the final disposition of criminal charges. Reichard said that every civilian complaint is investigated and that there were probably about 10 to 15 per year.

The department uses a computer system that tracks civilian complaints, use-of-force reports and supervisors' complaints and automatically applies a "red flag" whenever an officer has multiple instances of use of force or civilian complaints. Supervisors are notified when red flags are applied, Reichard said.

The city also has a Police Community Relations Committee, but critics say the panel lacks authority to be effective.

Norwich

The Norwich NAACP and its Robertsine Duncan Youth Council want more than demonstrations and pleas for police and city government to hear their frustrations over persistent "senseless" attacks on African Americans by police and civilians alike — including the racially motivated intimidation incident Tuesday morning involving two women at the Norwich Starbucks.

The NAACP issued a news release Thursday saying the branch "will work with our elected and appointed officials, police department, community partners and residents" on a five-point action plan to improve the community's race relations. The plan includes establishing a citizens review board to handle complaints of police behavior.

The plan calls for reviewing the 2018-19 state law enforcement database, the 2019 community survey commissioned by Norwich police, the Norwich police use-of-force policy, including whether knee holds, rubber bullets and stun guns are acceptable and the department's record of disciplining or charging officers with misconduct.

The group also wants to review incidents of hate crimes and falsified reporting of crimes.

City Manager John Salomone said the city receives "a few" complaints per year about Norwich police — none that he or Daley could recall that led to discipline of an officer.

Chief Patrick Daley said Norwich's use-of-force policy is a mixture of the city's own wording and state and national accreditation standards. It was last updated two years ago, when language was added regarding respect for the sanctity of human life, that human life is precious, and it is a police officer's job to protect human life.

The Norwich police written use-of-force policy explicitly prohibits "the use of neck restraints, chokeholds or other similar weaponless control techniques," unless the use of deadly force is authorized in the incident. The policy defines "hard hand controls" to include knee or elbow "strikes," punches and kicks, including to the side of the neck.

East Lyme

Chief Michael Finkelstein said he has received few civilian complaints during his tenure in the department, and none has alleged race-based discrimination. 

"These aren't complaints of malfeasance or abuse, but more about the officers' attitude or how they presented themselves during a situation," Finkelstein said. In those situations where an officer may not have actually broken policy, Finkelstein said he will have conversations with officers to help them "understand why the (complainant) had this impression."

"It's about how we can present ourselves better or communicate better. It's important for us to observe," Finkelstein said, and to learn how "to handle the situation better."

Complaints of misconduct, as well as use-of-force incidents, are investigated by a supervisor and presented to Finkelstein for review and a determination.

Should disciplinary action be warranted, Finkelstein will forward the incident to the town's Police Commission, which is appointed by the Board of Selectmen and made up of civilians, and was formed in 2017 when the town's police force left the state's Resident State Trooper program and became independent. The commission then will make a decision on which disciplinary action to take based on the evidence presented from both sides.

Finkelstein, who has been East Lyme's police chief since 2017, said the department has had "extremely low instances of use of force." He added no serious injuries have been caused because of an officer's use of force since he has been with the department.

Out of the approximate 450 arrests the department has made since June 1, 2018, there have been five instances where force was used during arrests. All of those instances took place in 2020, Finkelstein said, and all those instances were deemed warranted and appropriate and did not require disciplinary action. He gave an example of an instance when an intoxicated arrestee had tried to run from police into an occupied hotel after recklessly driving his vehicle through town. Police used a stun gun to subdue the person.

Ledyard

Between June 1, 2018, and June 1, 2020, Ledyard police, with 23 sworn officers, reported nine instances of use of force and 17 complaints. Nine were civilian complaints, and the remaining eight were initiated internally.

Ledyard police Chief John Rich said anyone in the department can take a civilian complaint, whether over the phone, in person or through a form available at the department and on the town website. Per department policy, all complaints are sent to a supervisor as soon as they come in. He said they do accept anonymous complaints, though it makes it more difficult to follow up when more clarifying information is needed.

When possible, the department also secures video or audio recordings to assist in the investigation. 

Rich said all instances of use of force are documented with accompanying information, such as witness statements, photos of any injuries and medical release forms, and submitted to a lieutenant within 72 hours. If an incident is found to be an unnecessary use of force, the department conducts an internal affairs investigation.

He said corrective action can include discipline, such as suspension, and mandatory retraining in areas such as use-of-force policies or constitutional law. In December, the department reviews all instances of use of force from the year to determine the department's training needs for the coming year.

"Everybody understands that when you use force on somebody, just expect it to be reviewed," he said.

A recent use of force reported by The Day in March involved the use of a stun gun of a man who was fleeing on foot after officers found marijuana and cocaine in his car. The report found the use of force was justified, and the man's injuries were the result of tripping and falling while fleeing.

Groton City

Police Chief Michael Spellman provided The Day with seven use-of-force reports submitted between January 2018 and November 2019 and said the department is working to provide the civilian complaints. In every case, the reports were reviewed by command staff at every level and signed off by Spellman, and each time the officer who used force was determined to have been justified and within policy.

One report says a man who held a door shut with his body while undercover officers attempted to serve a warrant at Motel 6 was struck in the mouth when the officer pushed the door open. The reports in those cases indicate only that the people involved were "non-Hispanic."  

In another case, a white man who wrestled while resisting handcuffing directed a racial slur at a black officer and attempted to spit at officers.  

"I hear a lot about walls in today's world, and I talk about doors, and doors are open," Spellman said. "If you have a concern, we'll hear it and listen to it. If we can make it better, we will. If we screwed up, we'll own it."

Groton Town

The Groton Town Police Department provided an August 2019 complaint made by a woman who said an officer endangered the public by speeding through the intersection of Route 12 and Walker Hill Road to pursue a speeding car without activating lights or siren. The officer pulled over the woman after she flashed her high beams at his car and issued her a written warning. He said he had to look away from the car he was pursuing and lost sight of it.

The investigation included more than 13 minutes of body camera video, and a sergeant concluded the officer had acted respectfully toward the woman and that his actions were "lawful, ethical, moral and within the scope of his training." The findings went up the chain of command to the chief for review, and Deputy Chief Paul Gately notified the complainant of the findings by letter.

The department said it was unable to immediately provide use-of-force reports, but Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. mentioned a recent incident in which an officer used a stun gun on a man who had a knife and was threatening to harm himself and others.

"Officers are trained on use of force and legal standards," Fusaro said, citing the Fourth Amendment, which limits police powers, and U.S. Supreme Court cases that set the precedent for use of force, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor

"An officer doesn't have to wait to be assaulted or threatened to be killed," Fusaro said. "You don't have to wait for someone to hit you over the head before you defend yourself. An officer can't stabilize the situation if they're incapacitated."

Stonington

In Stonington, where police respond to about 20,000 calls and 600 arrests a year, police Chief J. Darren Stewart provided The Day with the 39 use-of-force reports filed by his officers since the beginning of 2018. Six of them involve the same Pawcatuck man, who reports show often fights with police when they are called to his home.

Stewart also provided The Day with a summary of complaints showing that nine have been filed against officers since the start of 2018. Five of those were filed by the department itself against officers who did not follow procedures. That left four filed by civilians. Stewart said none of those involved the use of force. Stewart said his department would provide The Day with copies of those complaints.

Stewart and Cap. Todd Olson explained that all use-of-force reports are reviewed by two of three supervisors to ensure officers followed department policy. They also pointed out that force is not only used during an arrest but may take place when officers are dealing with someone who is emotionally disturbed or under the influence.

"We have a good group of officers who talk to people. They come to work and they respect the community," Stewart said. "It's about treating all people fairly. Ultimately, police officers are judged on their fairness."

Waterford

Police Chief Brett Mahoney said the department typically has two to three use-of-force incidents a month and follows the state model for review. If the investigation finds the use of force was justified, the chief can impose discipline of up to 30 days' suspension. Any recommendation beyond 30 days goes to the town's police commission, and any suspected criminal activity would be reviewed by the state's attorney's office.

Mahoney said the department had just closed its first civilian complaint investigation of the year, in which a person who was putting fliers on cars at police headquarters complained about an officer who approached him and asked what he was doing. The complaining person refused to to identify themselves, Mahoney said, so he has no way of of getting him the finding, which indicates the officer's action was justified. 

Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Mary Biekert, Taylor Hartz, Amanda Hutchinson and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.florin@theday.com

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