Photo courtesy of the HPD

But lack of videotape in last week’s jail cell suicide shows need for more progress

Once a police department loses a community’s trust, it’s hard to get it back. The Hartford Police Department knows this all too well, and is taking steps to restore that trust. Unfortunately, it appears to have missed an easy one.

To the good, those steps include the firing of Officer Matthew Secore.

Secore, pictured, was charged last May with assaulting 21-year-old Ruben Perez, the mayor’s nephew, inside one of the jail cells at the HPD’s Jennings Road headquarters. News reports said that Secore entered the cell with a key and assaulted Perez. News reports also said that there were no cameras monitoring the holding cells at the time.

The case against Officer Secore is still pending, but there was an obvious motive. Perez had been charged with taking part in a Saturday night assault on Secore’s 23-year-old younger brother, Slade Secore, who had attempted to tow an illegally parked car. The beating reportedly had left Secore’s younger brother with facial cuts and bruises and the potential for diminished vision in his right eye.

The accusation was that Officer Secore, while he was off duty, had been allowed into Perez’s cell by two officers and a sergeant to take justice on his own. Afterward, Perez – with bruises and cuts of his own – went to the police himself.

“Every one of those individuals that was on duty in the lockup that day have either retired, been demoted and reassigned, or fired,” HPD spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy said. It’s not clear exactly when Secore was terminated, and Mulroy didn’t have available the names of the sergeant who retired or the officers who were demoted.

But the chief’s a “doer,” Mulroy said of Chief Daryl Roberts. “He takes swift and certain action.”

That may be true. And the department also recently revamped its Web site in an effort to be more forthcoming with information. But it has fallen short in an area where transparency would have gone a long way last week in a community struggling to trust its police.

Last week, when South Street resident Lewis Green had committed suicide in a jail cell, it was a stark reminder of the same problem in the Secore case – the jail cells are not being videotaped.

The department says all of the cells are now monitored by cameras that feed realtime images to a bank of computer screens monitored by officers overseeing the detention area. The department has a large holding cell and a hallway lined with smaller, individual cells. It is up for debate – and now an internal investigation – whether anyone was watching those monitors at the time of Green’s suicide last week, because although cameras are present, the department says that they are not yet capable of recording those images for later review.

Green, whom police said was both intoxicated and agitated when he was brought in on a disorderly conduct charge, was placed in one of the individual cells for his own safety rather than being locked in the large holding cell with others. According to the department, by the time officers noticed that Green had used his shirt to hang himself from the bars of his cell, it was too late to save him.

Police also said that although Green had a decades-long history of 49 arrests, he had never shown signs of suicidal tendencies. If there had been previous evidence of suicidal tendencies, officers would have been reminded by a blinking signal in Green’s computerized case file. They are trained to deal with suicide attempts because, police say, they are a fairly common occurrence. Chief Roberts told the news media last week that his officers stop a few suicides a week, on average.

So with all these suicide attempts and an officer accused of assaulting the mayor’s nephew in a holding cell within the last 10 months, no one could find a few hundred dollars to connect the cameras to VCRs?

Apparently, plans are in the works to install recording equipment of some kind, but the work hasn’t been completed yet. We are supposed to believe that. But it shouldn’t take 10 months to price, purchase, and install video recording equipment, even where a publicly funded bureaucracy is concerned.

Meanwhile, police officials say there appears to be no wrongdoing by officers on duty in the detention area at the time of Green’s suicide, and one would like to believe they are correct. The investigation is ongoing. But they certainly will have a difficult time proving right or wrong in this case, won’t they? Essentially, all they have to go on is the word of the officers on duty – who may or may not have been negligent – or the word of prisoners in the cells near Green’s.

“Prisoners in vicinity had a view of him and didn’t notice anything unusual,” Mulroy said. “They didn’t hear anything. They didn’t notice any distress on the part of Mr. Green.”

Where does that leave us? It leaves us needing to trust the department to investigate itself fairly and impartially, because there is no videotape evidence to look at despite readily available, inexpensive VHS technology. It leaves us placing our trust in the department, again, when we still are waiting to see if justice will be served in yet another high-profile case about trust in the police department, the 2005 shooting death of Jashon Bryant.

Make no mistake, this is not to suggest that the prosecution of Officer Robert Lawlor in the Bryant shooting has anything to do with Mr. Green’s suicide or the allegation that Officer Secore assaulted Mr. Perez in a jail cell. But the Bryant case does relate directly to the department’s credibility problem. These issues need to be resolved if the community is to move forward. Otherwise, we’ll need to videotape all of our police, whenever and wherever they’re on the job. And, in some cases, when they are off duty for good measure.

People should be afraid to go to jail. But they shouldn’t be terrified to go to jail. That just makes the city’s most difficult job – the HPD’s – that much more difficult.