Complaints against Groton Town police range from parking tickets to election interference
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about civilian complaints against local police departments.
Groton — Sometimes things go wrong even when police are acting within the scope of their duties.
In March 2019, the Groton Town police posted photographs of a judicial marshal on Facebook and wrote that she was wanted in a larceny at Walmart. It turned out the store provided the investigating officer, Michael McCarthy, with surveillance photos taken the day before the crime was committed. The marshal had merely been shopping with her daughter when she returned an item to a shelf that investigators mistook for a customer's lost purse that had been emptied of $400.
The civilian complaint she brought against McCarthy about a week later was one of 30 complaints against town police officers in 2018, 2019 and the first half of 2020. The police department provided the documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information request The Day made to all area police departments last month amid a renewed public focus on police accountability in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody.
In all of the complaints, including the one made against McCarthy, supervisors determined officers acted lawfully, though not always perfectly.
Sgt. Richard Sawyer wrote in a report that McCarthy was "doing his due diligence" in investigating the Walmart larceny and had no intent to damage the woman's reputation or cause her trauma. Sawyer recommended that supervisors review images before they are posted on Facebook and that posts contain more "innocuous language" that doesn't identify a person as a suspect of a crime, but as someone who may have information for police.
The town was one of the first area police departments to require officers to wear body cameras while interacting with the public, and the cameras have become an excellent tool in everyday police work and evaluation of civilian complaints, according to Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr.
Two officers have received "performance observation reports" warning them to keep their body cameras on whenever they are interacting with the public. Another was counseled about his demeanor during traffic stops.
Some of the complaints are from people who didn't like the way they were treated by police.
Officer Thomas Taylor, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall, has a deep, bellowing voice and a background as a military police officer, is a top performer in motor vehicle enforcement, according to a report written by Lt. William Wolfe after a woman complained about Taylor's demeanor during an Oct. 10, 2018, traffic stop.
"He could, however, benefit from learning how to present himself to the public in a manner that will possibly ease the tension of the moment by simply incorporating a pleasant greeting into his repertoire," Wolfe wrote.
Twelve complaints involved traffic or parking issues. Groton Town, with 70 officers, is first in its size for enforcement of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and second in the entire state, according to Fusaro, and is scheduled to receive an award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"It's important to note that our officers are very active in DWI enforcement and have been for years," Fusaro said. "Some of the complaints that you have reviewed are the direct result of DWI enforcement efforts. Ultimately, those efforts have made this community safer; however, we cannot tie a number to how many tragedies these efforts have prevented."
Some crimes simply can't be prevented.
In August 2019, Fusaro and Town Manager John Burt went to the home of a resident who complained, after a shooting in her neighborhood, that police had not been responsive to her previous complaints about possible illegal activity. Fusaro also met with the woman in his office and went over the 17 complaints she had made since 2004 about a variety of issues. He concluded in a letter to Burch that her recollection of the incidents were not "completely compatible" with what was documented, but that her concerns are taken seriously, and that officers would continue to do proactive policing activities to help deter future similar incidents.
The town manager said by email that he routinely reviews civilian complaints and is generally satisfied with the process and outcomes.
"The police administration takes complaints seriously and thoroughly investigates each complaint containing sufficient detail to do so," Burt wrote.
Two complaints came from Town Council candidates, who said Sgt. Stephen McAndrew, president of the police union, spread negative information about them during last year's election season. One also named Chief Fusaro and was determined to be unfounded after an investigation by the deputy chief, who enlisted assistance from Ledyard police Chief John Rich. The other complaint, brought by Councilor Juliette Parker, was not supplied by the department because it is still under investigation.
Complaint investigation process
Critics of the long-established procedure by which police investigate complaints of misconduct against their own officers say the system is flawed. Groton Town, like other departments in the state, uses a mandated process set forth by Connecticut's Police Officer Standards and Training Council pursuant to Public Act 14-166.
Town councilors are considering forming a civilian review board to investigate complaints of police misconduct, and state legislators have convened in special session to consider a police accountability bill that addresses civilian review panels along with chokeholds, the issue of qualified immunity for officers charged with misconduct, implicit bias training and the appointment of an inspector general to investigate deadly force incidents. The state House passed the measure early Friday morning and it is scheduled for debate in the Senate on Tuesday.
Fusaro and Deputy Chief Gately cooperated with The Day's request for information, meeting with a reporter to explain the process and review body camera footage, and answering follow-up questions by phone and email. They said they had to notify the police union of their intent to provide the complaints.
The deputy chief receives complaints and assigns them to a captain, lieutenant or sergeant for investigation. The department contacts the complainant, meets with the officer and, if desired, a union representative, and reviews the evidence, which increasingly includes body camera video. The supervisor decides whether the complaint is founded or unfounded and metes out discipline, if warranted. The conclusions are reviewed by Gately or Fusaro, and the department contacts the complainant with the results of the investigation.
Though civilian complaints are considered public records under the state Freedom of Information Act, town police Records Officer Robert A. Strohl Jr. redacted the names of the complaining parties. Town Attorney Eileen Duggan cited the potential for publication of the complainant's names to have a "chilling effect" on others who might want to make a complaint. During a follow-up phone conversation this past week, Duggan referenced a 1991 decision that allowed the Norwalk Police Department to "mask" the identifying information of people who made complaints about a police sergeant.
The department held back three complaints that are incomplete and, by agreement, did not turn over complaints generated internally when an officer was involved in a personal matter.
The department, whose officers are mostly white, does not track the race of complainants, and in reading some of the documents, it's difficult to determine whether race was a factor. Fusaro said two officers within the department are certified trainers in fair and impartial policing.
The mother of a 21-year-old man filed a complaint against Officer Anthony Lucero in February 2020 after Lucero stopped him four times for illegal use of blue fog lamps on his car and ultimately issued a $92 infraction. The mother said Lucero was harassing her son, who she said is a good kid who works two jobs and goes to school. Lucero warned the man he would get a hefty fine for not changing the headlamps, but when he was stopped again two weeks later, he told Lucero he had been busy. Patrol supervisor David Miner determined Lucero's contacts with the man were "the result of an officer's attempt to remedy an ongoing motor vehicle violation," but spoke to Lucero, who had not activated his body camera during one of the encounters.
In June 2019, the department received a complaint from a woman who received a $92 ticket from Officer Marvel Bennett for driving by him at 55 mph in an area with a posted 40 mph speed limit while he conducted speeding enforcement on Groton Long Point Road. The woman complained she had been the target of "bias-based policing" when he saw her driving an expensive car with a vanity plate.
"Did he see my family's four-digit license plate on the Acura MDX, and think I was some entitled @$%/\ from (Groton Long Point) or Mumford Cove and decide, 'Oh, she didn't even tap her breaks, I'll show her.'"
Sgt. Christopher Holt reviewed body camera footage and determined Bennett conducted himself appropriately.
"The act of running laser and radar is considered 'blind enforcement' because the officer is measuring speeds of vehicles traveling on the road and is not aware of the make, model, year or operator of the vehicle they are targeting with the equipment. This is not a case of bias policing or profiling," Holt wrote.
In February 2019, a Black woman complained that Officer Taylor had violated her rights and conducted a racially motivated stop when he approached her silver BMW, parked in a concealed location alongside the Groton Utilities Substation on Gungywamp Road, and asked for her identification. It was dark and in an unlit area, and the car had no marker light displayed, according to a report by Sgt. Anthony LaFleur, who wrote that under these conditions, "it would be impossible to observe whether or not the vehicle was occupied."
LaFleur reported body camera video of the incident showed Taylor approaching the car and with a "polite and cordial tone" explaining the building was closed and is private property and asking for her identification. The woman reached for her cellphone to record the incident, telling him she needed to protect herself because "black people sometimes get shot by police officers for no reason." While reaching for her identification, she told him, "Please don't pull your gun, just getting my ID."
The woman, who said she was just "chilling" in her car, left the area without further incident.