Case highlights need for New London police phone upgrades

New London — Four city police officers who used their personal cellphones to communicate during an undercover narcotics investigation that led to the arrest in May of parolee Bennie Gray Jr. brought their phones to Superior Court on Friday to show to Judge Hunchu Kwak if necessary.

The cops also brought attorneys to court to fight Gray's subpoena of their personal phone records.

Gray is accused of selling 0.8 grams of crack cocaine to 28-year-old Brian Drobnak while officers observed the transaction on Broad Street in May 2018. Assistant State's Attorney Sarah W. Bowman, who is prosecuting him, argued to quash the subpoena, as did attorney Brian Estep from the city's law firm, Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco. Attorney Kelly Rommel from AFSCME Council 4 was in court on behalf of the police union, and New London's top prosecutor, State's Attorney Michael L. Regan, also attended the hearing.

Gray, through defense attorney William T. Koch Jr., had subpoenaed records of the officers' personal phones after learning they used an application on their phones to communicate. Until Friday, Gray and Koch did not even know the name of the push-to-talk mobile app Zello or how it works. Koch said he would need more time to find out whether the app company, which is based in Texas, might have preserved records of the communications between officers during Gray's drug arrest.

Capt. Brian Wright, who had examined the cellphones of officers Todd Lynch, Jeremy Zelinski, Joseph Pelchat and Ryan Griffin, testified that he reviewed the phones for the date and time specified in the subpoena and there was no record of them.

The officers did not have to show their phones to the judge, and Gray, frustrated with delays caused by the phone issue, decided he didn't want to pursue it and asked for a speedy trial.

The issue caught the attention of police administration, and Chief Peter Reichard said Friday afternoon that all members of the investigative services division are being issued iPhone 6 smartphones.  The new phones will replace the city-issued flip phones that were incapable of allowing officers to conduct the instant, walkie-talkie like communications they use during narcotics investigations and also will make it easier to conduct other operations, such as sending photos from a crime scene to someone preparing a search and seizure warrant at headquarters, Reichard said.

He said the personnel getting smartphones have been told the devices are to be used in their official capacity, and everything on them is discoverable, which means the phones will be made available in a court proceeding.

Reichard also said that Gray, who is being held in prison while his case is pending, served all of the officers with handwritten lawsuits alleging they violated his civil rights. He said the city's insurance carrier has been notified and is assigning attorneys to respond to the cases.

Jury selection for Gray's case now is set for Dec. 17.

The 39-year-old Gray was set to go on trial in October when the phone issue came up. 

Gray had returned to the New London area after serving 18 years of a 23-year prison sentence for the November 1997 shooting death of DeJohn Strong. He was granted supervised parole on June 7, 2017.

The May arrest was his second recent run-in with police.

He was living with a relative in Groton when he was arrested by Groton Town Police and members of the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force in September 2017 and charged with selling heroin and crack cocaine after police received information from an informant who told them he also had seen Gray carrying a gun in his waistband.

He launched a vigorous defense in that case, too. His then defense attorney, Gordon Videll, said the state decided to drop the charges during jury selection because officials didn't want to disclose the name of the informant.

k.florin@theday.com

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