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'Simple' traffic stop led to complaint against Montville police officer

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Montville — Colin Poitras picked up his cousin from her Uncasville home on June 19, 2019, to drive her to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was receiving treatment for cancer.

Town police Officer Matthew Shepard, who joined the department in 2013, was conducting routine traffic enforcement that day, using radar in a marked Ford Explorer SUV.

What happened next was considered by Shepard's superiors a simple traffic stop, handled appropriately and professionally, which ended with the issuance of infractions for speeding and failing to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a change of address.

Nothing was routine about the stop for Poitras, 57, of Cheshire, a longtime Hartford Courant reporter who now works for Yale School of Public Health. He was so shaken by the 19-minute event, he filed a detailed civilian complaint alleging Shepard exhibited bullying behavior, hostility and verbal abuse and aggression.

His complaint, and a dashboard camera video of the stop, were provided to The Day by state police pursuant to a Freedom of Information request for all complaints filed in the past two years. The Day requested, and obtained, complaints and use-of-force reports from all area police departments as reporters set about reviewing police accountability in the wake of the death of George Floyd and national protests against police brutality.

Like the vast majority of complaints reviewed by The Day, Poitras' was investigated by the officer's superiors and deemed to be unfounded. Poitras sent the complaint to Lt. John Ceruti of the state police Bureau of Professional Standards, indicating in an email, "I hope you find this complaint has value in improving the performance and operations of the Montville Police Department, its officers, and specifically Officer Shepard."

State police Lt. Todd Harbeck, commanding officer of Troop E in Montville, and Sgt. Mark Juhola of Troop E investigated the complaint, and it was reviewed by Maj. Arthur Goodale, commanding officer of the state police Eastern District, and Ceruti from the professional standards unit.

Poitras said by email Friday that he has mixed feelings about the investigation.

"I appreciate that an investigator from the state police Professional Standards Unit looked into my complaint and I received a letter informing me of the outcome from the commander of the Montville state police barracks," he wrote. "But I was never personally interviewed by anyone. The decision was based on my complaint form and any additional attachments I submitted such as photos of the area. As a former reporter who covered various Connecticut police departments for years, I knew what I wanted to say and what details I should probably include. I'm concerned others may find the online process difficult."

Shepard's report indicates he was driving west on Maple Avenue when his radar indicated Poitras, traveling east in a Honda CRV, was driving 42 mph in a posted 25 mph zone. Shepard turned around and caught up with Poitras. He activated his lights and siren, but deactivated them as he pulled behind Poitras at the intersection of Route 32. The action confused Poitras, who didn't realize he was being pulled over and thought Shepard was responding to an emergency that was called off.

Poitras turned left onto Route 32 and stayed to the left, as his GPS indicated, so he could turn onto Route 163 at the next intersection. He said Shepard followed behind him, reactivating his lights and siren and "aggressively blasting his air horn." Poitras, thinking Shepard had been re-dispatched to an emergency, stayed to the left, fearing if he pulled over to the right, Shepard would hit his car as he attempted to pull around it. When he realized he was being pulled over, Poitras said he planned to turn left onto Route 163 before pulling over because he thought it was safer. Shepard thought Poitras was refusing to stop, and could be heard on the dashcam recording saying, "This guy looks like he's going to keep on driving."

Confused and rattled, Poitras said he decided to drive straight through the intersection and pull over in a sandy clearing to the right where it was safe to stop. When Shepard approached the car and asked him if he didn't know he should pull over to the right, Poitras thought he seemed agitated. Shepard asked Poitras why he had his phone in his hand, and Poitras said he was recording the stop because he was scared.

The interaction remained unpleasant for Poitras, who continued to ask questions. He said Shepard accused him of drinking after spotting hand sanitizer in his console. And when Poitras, not familiar with the area, asked what police department Shepard was with, Shepard said, "What, you don't even know what town you're in?" Poitras asked Shepard to call a sergeant to the scene, and Shepard told him no.

When Poitras' cousin indicated she had cancer and was going to the hospital for cancer treatment, Shepard indicated they would be on their way shortly.

Lt. David Radford, executive officer of the Montville Police Department, said by phone Friday that officers have discretion when somebody requests a sergeant at a scene. "We can't have sergeants running out to every call," he said. "I don't even know if there was one on duty that day."

Radford said that if people would just comply with officers when they're stopped, they could resolve any issues with the stop later. Poitras said his traffic charges were nolleed, or not prosecuted, by the court with no explanation.

In a letter to Poitras informing him that Shepard's actions were "lawful, proper and in compliance with department policy," and that there was no evidence Shepard was hostile or aggressive, Harbeck acknowledged confusion about the way Shepard had signaled Poitras to pull over.

Montville has a full force of 26 trained and certified police officers, and a modern public safety complex on Route 32, but remains a constabulary under the supervision of state police. Voters have twice rejected proposals for an independent police force, in 2002 and 2013, citing budgetary concerns. Town police cruisers are equipped with dashboard cameras, but the town has no immediate plans to outfit its officers with body cameras, according to Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel, who said acquiring them would be subject to the availability of funding and the collective bargaining contract with police.

In his nine-year tenure as mayor, McDaniel, considered the chief of police, said he has disciplined officers for things like misuse of sick time but never terminated anyone or found excessive use of force or abuse of power.

"I'm very proud of the men and women in our police department, and I think they do a phenomenal job," McDaniel said by phone Friday. "They're very engaged in the community, and I think that helps when they approach people. And people should feel safe when they are approached."

Poitras said he has been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, which sometimes causes him to perceive threats more intensely than others.

"Clearly my complaint is extremely minor compared to what we see happening to others, particularly people of color, during their interactions with the police," he wrote in the email. "Two things concern me. One, I believe to this day that the officer's aggression was out of line and excessive for the circumstances. I understand every time an officer stops a car, they put their lives on the line and they need to be wary. But police officers are people too. They are subjected to stress and fatigue and sometimes they make poor decisions like the rest of us.  But because they carry a gun and have the power to deny someone their civil liberties, the need for restraint, proper behavior and professionalism is never greater."

He added, later, that he is disappointed with the outcome of the investigation.

"The letter I received from the Troop E commander backs the officer entirely saying he acted appropriately and professionally. It clearly implies that I was the one who overreacted. This decision to downplay my very real fear and discomfort with the officer's aggressive behavior indicates to me a complete lack of understanding, awareness and empathy by the Montville officer and the Connecticut State Police in terms of dealing with individuals with mental health concerns. My situation was minor. I worry most about others with more significant mental health concerns and whether police are properly trained to interact with them respectfully and appropriately."

k.florin@theday.com

About this series

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police, and Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police during the execution of a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Ky., The Day decided to explore interactions between local police and civilians. Reporters officially requested two of years of civilian complaints and use-of-force investigations. The purpose of this series is to inform readers about rarely reported incidents in which people are dissatisfied with the way they were treated by police.

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