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Black Montville man has regrettable history with town police

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Montville — Roscoe Washington knows he was wrong to drive away from a town police officer who pulled him over on Route 163 five years ago for following the officer's cruiser too closely. 

Washington, a 45-year-old Black man and veteran with five years of service in the U.S. Navy, said he'd had enough. 

Polite, well spoken and exuding an air of sadness, Washington described, during a phone interview earlier this summer and an in-person meeting on the back porch of his mother's home in Oakdale Heights, years of negative encounters with police leading up to Jan. 16, 2015.

The local and national protests that occurred this spring following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody gave Washington the courage to contact the Norwich branch of the NAACP and to call The Day to describe what he perceives as years of harassment by town police.

His reaction on that January day sounded similar to that of Eric Garner, a Black man who ended up dead a year earlier, after being placed in a chokehold when he told police, "This ends today," after being stopped by New York City police for selling loose cigarettes.

The seemingly routine encounter between Washington and town police escalated into a standoff in his backyard and became a life-changing event for him and his family. 

Pulled over by Officer Michael Pelletier, Washington decided to drive to his house, a little over a mile away, so his family could witness the stop.

Not surprisingly, the family's version of the event and the police report read differently.

The Montville police report indicates that Washington cursed at Pelletier and nearly struck him while driving away, then led police on a pursuit while driving up to 60 mph. The report indicates he nearly struck two cruisers and illegally passed three vehicles.

The pursuit was called off by state police, but town and state officers followed Washington as he drove to his family home and into the backyard. Police said Washington tried to strike officers with his car as they attempted to take him into custody. Washington contended he was scared of being killed and backed his car up while waiting for his mother to come home and tell him what to do.

He was tased, pepper sprayed and arrested at gunpoint. His sister Monique, who frantically yelled advice to him from inside the house, was charged with interfering with police. His mother, who drove up during the incident, said she was injured when a police officer closed her car door on her leg.

Pelletier suffered a hand injury and was treated at Backus Hospital.

Washington ended up pleading guilty to attempted assault on a public safety officer, a felony, and to first-degree reckless endangerment and reckless driving. He received a suspended prison sentence and three years of probation.

The charge against his sister was not prosecuted.

History of police run-ins

Records provided by Washington's mother, Sandra Washington, and by town police through a Freedom of Information request show how years of accumulating frustration led to the crescendo of trauma that took place that day.

Washington experienced learning disabilities and was often depressed while attending schools in Waterford and Norwich Technical High School.

As an adult, he worked at various jobs and had relationships with women, but none of them held. He continued to suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

He suffered a stroke in 2012, and a month after the 2015 police encounter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition the family's physician confirmed can impair judgment.

Washington was identified by police in 2009 as someone who was "very anti law enforcement" after, a dispatch report indicates, he drove past an officer in his silver Audi and "flipped off" the officer for no reason. The incident and his prior history of "21-A," or use of narcotics, was reported "FYI" during a Dec. 8, 2009, roll call for town police in case they encountered Washington.

Washington had been pulled over for traffic infractions about a dozen times leading up to the 2015 event. During a 2012 stop, police said they found him in possession of "a large amount of hashish and marijuana." He was charged with harassing a girlfriend in 2017.

Over the years, Washington's mother, a retired state worker and his fiercest advocate, called police on him twice. Police reports indicate she called once to report that he pushed her down during an argument, and another time for a verbal dispute that occurred while he was moving his belongings out of the home. He was not prosecuted in those incidents.

Washington was pulled over as recently as July 7, 2020, on a driving infraction charge. Living in a town where census records indicate that just 5.2% of residents are Black, the family can't help but think that they've been targeted because of their race. But town Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel, who met with Sandra Washington following the 2015 incident, says that has nothing to do with it. He said the incident was reviewed by state police, who determined officers acted appropriately, and that town police are well-trained in de-escalating situations and interacting with people in crisis.

More police training needed

Police say the way people react during an encounter determines the outcome, but advocates for people of color say police need a better understanding of the trauma that leads to such reactions.

Shiela Hayes, president of the Norwich NAACP, said the branch is gathering paperwork with the possibility of assisting Washington with applying for a pardon. She said she understands the stresses that police face. Hayes also knows all too well why Washington reacted the way he did, and said she finds it concerning if somebody says they don't understand. 

"We have seen young men of color react in what we consider a proper manner that led to the death of young Black men," she said. "I'm not saying those police (in other parts of the country) represent the type of police we have here. For a young man, they're going to be on edge. they're going to anticipate, because that's the way our community has been treated. I'm not saying by every cop, but all it takes is one encounter, and that's what's going to traumatize you."

She said the Police Accountability Act that was just passed by the General Assembly includes more training for officers around the issues of trauma and mental health issues and for providing police access to people who are trained in those fields.

Hayes said what happened with Montville police was unfortunate but she is more concerned about whether Washington, and other Black men, are treated equitably by the court system.

"That's where it's difficult to sit up there and say, the police, the police, the police," Hayes said. "The real impact is what's going on in the criminal justice system."

Niantic attorney Ronald F. Stevens studied the Montville standoff, which was handled by another attorney, while representing Washington in the 2017 domestic incident.

"This is one of those things where there was an overreaction by the police," Stevens said by phone. "I think the family had a bad reputation with the police department. My personal opinion of him is that I don't think he is aggressive. I think he is more concerned and fearful."

Stevens said that in the domestic case, he was able to convince prosecutor Christa L. Baker that Washington is "not the bad person that police portray him to be." He said the police report from the domestic incident, which occurred in Old Saybrook, indicated inaccurately that Washington had broken a Montville officers' arm in the 2015 incident.

"Forget about his color," Stevens said. "This got out of control. And the system didn't really handle him well until the end, when finally we gave the state's attorney enough information where she made an intelligent and informed decision."

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version includes Mr. Washington's service in the U.S. Navy, which was ommitted in the earlier version, and corrects the schools he attended.

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