NEW BRITAIN, CT — Advocates say 13 months is too long to wait for investigations into police-involved shootings, but legislators in Hartford are wary of setting a deadline even though they empathize with victims’ families.
The five police officers who shot and killed 20-year-old aspiring rapper Zoe “Gangstalicious” Dowdell were cleared last week after an internal affairs review by the city. John Smriga — the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Fairfield who was called in from his district to impartially investigate the Dec. 14, 2017 incident — also declined to press charges against the officers, stating in his report that the evidence shows they were justified in using deadly force 13 months ago.
Dowdell was shot along with two others in his vehicle as they were trying to flee from officers who had surrounded his car on a dark, snowy, secluded side street in New Britain. Dowdell and the others, a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old, were believed to be suspects in a string of violent carjackings in the city when police tried to take them into custody.
Two police dash cam videos show a chaotic scene that unfolds quickly.
Dowdell’s vehicle is struck by street by police cruisers and blocked on the street before he backs it onto the sidewalk and is struck by another approaching police vehicle, pushing his car in the direction of officers approaching on foot. Dowdell’s car is boxed in by a berm in front of a residence, multiple police cruisers, and a utility pole.
Dowdell’s car then bumps a police cruiser as he tries to turn in the very tight space between it and the berm along the sidewalk, as officers close in on foot in the snow.
As the car makes the tight turn, the video shows the officers are close enough to touch the car and are being forced to move quickly to avoid the moving vehicle’s driver’s side. Dowdell’s car is moving toward the gap between an unmarked police vehicle and the utility pole and in that split second officers open fire on the driver’s side as the car pulls forward around the pole, down the sidewalk and then onto the street. More shots are fired after Dowdell’s vehicle is off camera and officers are then heard attempting to apply tourniquets and medical attention to the wounded youth.
In all, officers fired 28 shots. Dowdell was struck in the head, neck, and legs, and died later at the hospital. The two others were also shot, but not seriously injured and are being held on bond after being charged with some of the robberies.
Dowdell’s death, and others like it, including the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Jayson Negron in Bridgeport in 2017, have sparked protests and a handful of proposed bills in the past two years seeking to increase police transparency and limit the time frame for the investigations into fatal police-involved shootings.
So far, none have passed, including a 2017 bill, HB 5922, which would have required the state’s Division of Criminal Justice to complete the investigations in five days at a possible cost pegged by the Office of Fiscal Analysis at $4.3 million a year.
Stakeholders on both sides of the issue say they are ready to take up the discussion again. But few seemed ready to put any changes into law this session.
“We’ve had these conversations with Division of Criminal Justice in the past and I know there is a sensitivity to releasing information as the investigations are being conducted,” said Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport. “I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to get out as much information to the public as possible. I think there are a number of proposals that are floating around and I’m sure they will be discussed.”
This session Stafstrom’s committee received a proposal from Rep. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, for a HB 6707, requiring that more money be allocated to the Division of Criminal Justice and the Judicial Branch to ensure investigations are completed in a timely manner.
The current process is “bad for police, it’s bad for the families and it’s bad for the community,” Lopes said. “I want their best strategy on what can be done to shorten the process.”
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, proposed a similar bill, HB 5757, to the Public Safety and Security Committee after New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart asked the delegation representing the city to limit the investigations to six months or less.
“Erin had some concerns,” Petit said. “We thought at least through the bill we could raise some questions. We wanted to open the conversation. Maybe the answer is providing updates along the way.”
Under the current law, evidence in fatal police-involved shootings is gathered by a state police Major Crime Unit and turned over to for review to a state’s attorney who doesn’t represent the judicial district where the use of deadly force occurred. The investigations have taken seven months to four years, according to a review of use-of-force reports listed on the state Division of Criminal Justice website. In the past five years there have been more than two dozen use-of-deadly-force investigations conducted by state’s attorneys. In each case, officers were deemed justified in the use of deadly force.
Traditionally the state police, the state’s attorney and the municipality involved won’t release any information on the deadly shootings, including dash or body camera videos, until the investigation is complete.
Dowdell’s parents, Shawn Dowdell, and Sherene Fagon, represented by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, filed separate Freedom of Information complaints against the city and state police seeking the release of the dash cam videos and any evidence gathered in connection with their son’s death. Most of the information was released with Smriga’s report, which was released close to 13 months after Zoe Dowdell died.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane agrees that the length of the investigations is a cause of concern for police and the public. But he’s hoping to discuss options that are more palatable without actually changing any laws.
“A time limit on the investigations is risky,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. “In the end they (the investigations) are very transparent. If we could find ways to do them more quickly and find ways where we could be more transparent, maybe we could do that without legislation.”
Any reduction in the time frame would likely require an increase in manpower for his agency, the state police, and the other agencies that process evidence such as the state crime lab, Kane said.
“The question is how much and what’s the optimal amount of funding?” Kane said. “It would certainly require more funding. I’m ready to have the conversation, but the thing I want to emphasize is these are thorough investigations that are very transparent when they are completed.”
The ACLU backed the 2017 proposal that ultimately failed to become law. This year, the ACLU is pushing for a bill, HB 5922, proposed by Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, that would close a loophole in state law by requiring state and local police to annually report use of force incidents. Currently police are only required to report the use of Tasers to state officials annually.
“There’s not a centralized database that has officer-involved shootings,” said CT ACLU Executive Director David McGuire. “There seems to be a groundswell of support on both sides of the aisle for this.”
McGuire’s organization has campaigned tirelessly to get the state to change the way police-involved shootings are investigated. “We’ve advocated strongly for reforms,” McGuire said. “The outcomes are unjust and the amount of time the victims and the families have to wait is inexcusable. We want meaningful and non-biased investigations.”
The Democratic majority on the committee is supportive of Porter’s bill to add reporting requirements for every time an officer fires their service weapon, Stafstrom said. But the Judiciary Committee co-chair stopped short of saying they would take up the cause for addressing fatal police-involved shootings.
The caucus’ priorities this session will be on the erasure of certain misdemeanor convictions, reducing misdemeanor sentences for immigration issues, safe firearm storage in vehicles, additional reporting from state’s attorneys on sentencing and plea data to check for racial disparities, and the legalization of recreational marijuana, he said.
“I’d say we have our work cut out for us,” Stafstrom said.