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New London police close investigation into pepper spray in officer's car

New London — New London police have found no evidence to support or refute claims by Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers that his personal vehicle was contaminated with pepper spray, alleged vandalism he suspected may have been done by a fellow officer in light of his complaints of racism at the department.

Documents obtained by The Day show that an investigation into the June 6 claim was inconclusive.

The investigation was completed internally after unsuccessful attempts to get state police or FBI involved and have forensic tests performed.

Police Capt. Brian Wright, who conducted the investigation, said the case was closed, barring any new evidence coming forward.

“I believe it was thorough and fair, done as completely and with as much transparency as possible,” Wright said.

On the evening of June 6, Rodgers had completed his evening shift, hopped in to his personal vehicle and was on his way home when he says he became overcome with what he believed to be pepper spray coming from the vehicle’s air vents. Coughing and gagging, Rodgers said he stopped the vehicle, got out and began dry heaving.

The incident had come during a time when Rodgers had been in the news both for his 20-day suspension for striking a handcuffed prisoner and for his allegations of systemic racism at the department. He has a pending complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and the city has hired an outside attorney to investigate internally Rodgers’ claims that as a Black man he was treated differently than his white counterparts.

On the day he made his complaint, a story had run in The Day in which Rodgers’ attorney alleged that one of Rodgers’ subordinates had tried to bypass Rodgers for approval of an arrest report in favor of a white officer. Rodgers had suspected retaliation.

“I find it suspicious that a letter from my attorney was sent to the Chief and a newspaper article came out later that day and now my vehicle gets (pepper) sprayed,” Rodgers wrote in a June 7 email to Lt. Matthew Galante.

Documents obtained by The Day through a Freedom of Information Act request show the first arriving officer to the scene was unable to smell anything in Rodgers’ vehicle or vents and had looked over different components of the vehicle, such as the air filter, to check for contaminants.

The subsequent investigation included gathering statements, interviews and a collection of surveillance footage. Rodgers had parked across the street from the police station behind the city-owned Stanton Building at 111 Union St. and not in the department’s parking lot, because of a protest in the city that day. The area where he parked is not covered by surveillance cameras and a review of surrounding video footage turned up nothing suspicious.

Rodgers said the reason he parked there was that he was unaware the department had secured off-site parking behind Ferry Street where other officers had parked that day.

The state’s attorney’s office declined to refer the matter to state police detectives and a request by New London Police Chief Peter Reichard for the FBI to take on the investigation was declined, the internal report states.

Documents also show that after a request to the state’s attorney’s office for testing of collected evidence — swabs of the vents and an air filter from Rodgers’ vehicle — police were informed by Inspector Tim Pitkin on June 11 that “the CT Division of Scientific Services does not do that type of testing.”

“I am not surprised by this outcome, but I continue to be distressed and concerned for Sgt. Rodgers’ safety," said Rodgers' attorney, Jacques Parenteau, in a statement. "Clearly, the New London Police Department had no interest in finding out who was responsible for the vicious attack on Sgt. Rodgers, an assault that could have resulted in serious injury. Obviously, the circumstances and responsibility for the pepper spray incident point to members of his own department. This report leads me to ask why an outside agency was not employed to investigate when there is such an obvious conflict of interest?”

Police, as part of their investigation, contacted the service department of a New London car dealership to inquire about whether it was possible to contaminate a vehicle with pepper spray through the vents. The answer was “most definitely,” according to one dealership service adviser.

Possible charges that could have applied in the case included third-degree criminal mischief, breach of peace and second-degree reckless endangerment.

“Independent of the disposition of this administrative review, it is unfortunate and disturbing that such an incident is even a possibility,” Wright wrote in an interdepartmental memo. “The New London Police Department is adamant in prioritizing officer safety throughout every shift, every day. Support for officer safety and wellness is vital to our agency.”

G.smith@theday.com

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