Jail cell suicide leads to changes for New London police

New London — An internal investigation into circumstances surrounding a man who died after hanging himself in a police jail cell in 2017 determined that four police department employees — two officers and two emergency dispatchers — violated protocol when they left the man unmonitored for more than 40 minutes.

The hanging has led to rule changes at the department regarding the monitoring of the video surveillance system and a pending project to retrofit jail cells to prevent access to the cell bars, New London police Chief Peter Reichard said Tuesday.

The death of Donovan Chaney, discovered on the morning of Jan. 17, 2017, hanging from his jail cell bars by a noose he crafted from his own clothing, is the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit pending in federal court by Chaney’s daughter, Jennifer Cook, against the city and Officer Wayne Neff.

The suit, with an unspecified monetary claim, alleges Chaney was overlooked as a suicide risk when he was placed in the cell, and his death was the result of “negligence and carelessness” by department personnel who did not follow department guidelines that dictate a prisoner must be checked at least every 30 minutes.

"On behalf of my client, the hope is that failures in the department's training, procedures or staffing levels are identified and corrected as a result of this process to prevent any future similar tragedy," said attorney Christine Synodi, who represents Cook in the suit.

After his attempted suicide in the prison cell, Chaney spent two weeks hospitalized and in a coma before he died. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide by hanging.

The internal investigation was conducted by Capt. Brian Wright, who determined that Chaney was left in the cell without a physical check and apparently without someone watching video surveillance monitors for more than the 30 minutes.

Neff was issued a written reprimand by Reichard for “general inefficiency,” records obtained by The Day show. Reichard found the citations against Lt. Robert Pickett, the supervisor on duty the night of the hanging, to be unfounded.

Citing pending litigation, police declined to discuss any possible disciplinary action against two dispatchers, Jamie DeGunia and Richard Waselik, who were working that night.

Chaney was discovered hanging in his cell at 2:13 a.m. Jan. 17, 2017, two hours after he was released from the hospital where he had been treated for what police called “superficial injuries” sustained prior to his arrest in a domestic violence incident at 24 Lee Ave.

Chaney eventually was booked on charges of disorderly conduct, second-degree criminal mischief, second-degree unlawful restraint, third-degree assault, interfering with a 911 call, second-degree threatening and criminal attempt to commit assault on a police officer.

Synodi argues in the suit that what police described as a superficial injury was a self-inflicted cut to Chaney’s wrist and that he was diagnosed at the hospital with anxiety, depression, self-mutilation and laceration of the right wrist.

Wright’s report indicates that New London County State’s Attorney Michael Regan documented the death as self-inflicted with “no further action by the Division of Criminal Justice warranted.” The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request for information on a state police investigation.

Wright determined that the actions of the officers and dispatchers that night “do warrant further administrative action.” He found violations of leadership and management oversight; prisoner handling and supervision; prisoner monitoring; prisoner security and control, and general neglect of duty.

Neff secured Chaney in a cell at 1:31 a.m. and documents obtained by The Day show that Neff noted in the NLPD Prisoner Suicide Screening Prevention form that Chaney was under the influence of alcohol and did not do or say anything that would indicate suicidal tendencies.

It was at 2:13 a.m. that Neff responded with Pickett to the cell, where Chaney could be seen on the security camera monitor hanging from the bars, the report shows. Chaney was left alone for at least 40 minutes, while department protocol requires prisoner checks every 30 minutes.

Wright noted in his report, dated April 9, 2018, that general orders dictate that “while in the cellblock prisoners and officers shall be monitored by the Department’s CCTV system which is located in the shift commander’s office and in view of dispatchers in the Emergency Communications Center.”

Wright, as a result of the investigation, recommended that officers assigned to so-called Post 1 duty — Neff’s assignment that night — be mandated to remain in the emergency communications center with a view of the security camera screens if not assigned to a walk-in complaint, assisting the public, processing a prisoner or making a prisoner check, some of the many duties of an officer assigned to headquarters.

“This assigned position would provide greater efficiency of police services and ensure regular monitoring of detainees which is essential to maintaining their safety and welfare,” he wrote.

Reichard said the recommendation was almost immediately instituted, along with an additional step of mandating that the television in the dispatch center be turned off when someone is being held in the holding cell.

Wright’s narrative of the video shows Chaney, just one minute after he is placed in the cell, start a series of actions that indicate his intentions: he ties the hospital gown around the bars of the jail cell and jail cell door, starts winding up his shirt and wrapping clothes around his neck and begins making a noose. By 2 a.m. Chaney falls to his knees with the clothing around his neck.

Reichard said the city’s public works department is handling renovations in the holding cell area and one cell already has been retrofitted so that bars are not accessible to prisoners.

Attorney Elliot B. Spector, who represents Neff and the city in the case, declined to comment. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Hartford before Judge Victor A. Bolden.

g.smith@theday.com

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