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Waterford police processed 7 complaint investigations in two years

Waterford — A man who claimed he was a "sovereign citizen," a woman who alleged police treated her roughly while handcuffing her and a man who had a personal dispute with an off-duty officer outside a church.

These are among the seven complaints against police personnel that the department has investigated since May 2018. 

All of the complaints came from civilians, and officers were absolved of any alleged wrongdoing in each matter. The department employs 49 officers and has responded to 62,000 calls since 2018 and has used various forms of force in 50 incidents during that time period. 

The department provided the civilian complaints and use-of-force reports in June, within two weeks of receiving a Freedom of Information request. The Day filed similar requests with all area police departments.

In June, police Chief Brett 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 person who filed the complaint refused to identify himself, Mahoney said, so he has no way of getting him the finding, which indicates the officer's action was justified.

The six other complaints dating back to 2018 were not anonymous. In the case of one Waterford woman who filed a complaint in 2019 after a March incident, police admitted to possible areas of improvement, though the woman eventually withdrew her complaint.

The woman claimed the department employed excessive use of force in detaining her for speeding. She said officers apprehended her and shoved her into a cruiser before taking her to the station.

Police said they clocked her going 53 miles per hour near her home. She was followed to her driveway, where an argument ensued because, police say, she was being uncooperative and not complying with Officer Zachary Caler’s requests.

He eventually arrested her for interfering with a police officer, and a physical struggle ensued as she resisted police efforts to seat-belt her. Caler told internal investigator Lt. Stephen Bellos that “he accidentally pushed (the woman’s) head when he went to put his arm across her chest so he could seatbelt her,” according to Bellos’ report.

During Bellos’ investigation, he spoke with Officer Robert Edwards, who came to the scene as backup. Edwards said he was surprised when Caler arrested the woman but “at that point backed his decision and later discussed other options with him.”

Once the woman was interviewed as part of the complaint process, she said she did play a role in escalating the situation and she withdrew her complaint. The investigation found that police could have listened better to the woman and that, during her run-in with police, Officer Patrick Epps made an unprofessional comment to the woman’s husband about the man having a bad week.

A New London woman complained in 2019 about being stopped by two officers while walking from Waterford, where she was visiting a friend, to the homeless shelter. She was handcuffed and searched, and she thought she was missing medication after the incident.

Epps saw the woman walk past and noticed she was uneasy on her feet. The officers involved felt she may have been on drugs. They ended up handcuffing her because she wouldn't comply when she was told to stop reaching in her purse. She was then left to go free. The woman said the officers gave her bruises on her left arm and left leg. After reviewing dashboard camera footage, Lt. Nicole VanOverloop determined there was no supporting evidence that Epps or Officer Wilfred Blanchette caused the bruising to the woman's arm and leg.

After reviewing the incident, Mahoney praised Epps for de-escalating the situation and making sure not to hurt the woman while detaining her. Epps was “exonerated,” meaning the department acknowledged the complaint or incident did happen, but the actions of members involved were proper and lawful.

Another Waterford woman said she thought police were rude to her and took the side of her husband in a domestic dispute in May 2018. She also accused now-Lt. Marc Balestracci of being insensitive about her traumatic brain injury. Bellos reviewed audio from when police responded to the incident and found that the officers were not disrespectful. The internal investigation stood by officers’ original recounting and decision-making from the incident, and agreed with their assessment that they treated the woman respectfully and with sensitivity to her brain injury. She and her husband were instructed to undergo counseling.

A Waterford man filed a complaint stating that when police pulled him over, they infringed his “right to travel in a sovereign capacity.” As Mahoney told Silva when referring the complaint for him to investigate, “The complaint is not a standard ‘actions of the officer’ complaint, this is (the man’s) assertions of citizenship. Regardless, the Waterford Police Department needs to continue an investigation into this matter to ensure that WPD protocols were followed.”

The police had checked for any outstanding warrants against the man, pulled him over and detained him, placing him in handcuffs. Mahoney told the man in a letter that checking for warrants is standard procedure, the man was lawfully pulled over because he wasn’t displaying a front license plate, and his being handcuffed “was proper as you did not provide identification, and escalated your tone and mannerisms. When other officers were on scene and you were identified, you were taken out of handcuffs.”

Another complaint, filed by an Uncasville man, involved a personal dispute with Officer Megan Sylvestre. The man complained that Sylvestre displayed conduct unbecoming a police officer when she kept him from entering her grandmother’s funeral. He accused her of swearing at him during a heated exchange outside St. Paul’s Church in Waterford.

An independent witness, however, said the two were swearing at each other. When considering the context — the man had filed a lawsuit against Sylvestre, who he said owes him money, and Sylvestre had been engaged to the man’s son, he said, before the engagement was broken off — the internal investigation found Sylvestre was acting outside her role as a police officer, and this was a personal dispute.

“The incident occurred when the officer was off-duty, during a funeral for a family member,” Mahoney wrote in a letter to the man. “According to the independent witness, you swore at each other throughout the incident. Officer Sylvestre did not identify herself as a police officer, and the only reference to the police was her suggestion that you call the police if you wanted to. Regardless of the person’s job title, in this case a police officer, they are allowed their emotions and to be emotional. You and officer Sylvestre have an understandably tense relationship, and are involved in litigation separate from the incident.”

Mahoney said the complaint was “not sustained,” meaning there was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the complainant’s account of the incident.

The final complaint involved a man upset that the police department wouldn’t mail an official document to the Planning and Zoning Department. Police found “that is not the avenue of correspondence between you and the town of Waterford, unless that correspondence involves the Waterford Police Department.”

A new complaint

Following the department sharing these complaints in response to The Day's FOI request, another complainant, a Waterford woman, came to The Day saying she was upset with the police response to an Aug. 6 incident in which she reported that a man approached her vehicle at her home and then proceeded to chase her as she quickly drove up the road to get away. During three days of visits to the police station after the incident to check whether an investigation would occur, the woman received confusing information from two sergeants and other staff at the station. She said police have not been responsive to her requests for an investigation into the matter or the man who chased her, and they've been generally dismissive. She's afraid to live in her home, she says, as the man who chased her was seen again in the neighborhood the day after the incident.

"I do feel there is an element of discrimination occurring against me as I am a female person of color (I am pretty visibly brown skinned and my name is also not a traditional American name) and the person who chased me is a white male," the Waterford woman wrote in an email to The Day. "Retaliation may be occurring since I asked about submitting a civilian complaint. The police certainly do not like me right now."

The Waterford woman has filed an official complaint with the department. It usually takes months for a complaint to be resolved, depending on its nature.

s.spinella@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series about civilian complaints and use-of-force investigations conducted by area police departments.

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