After a bruising 13 months that included protests, desk duty for five officers and an internal affairs investigation that pointed out policy gaps, New Britain officials are hoping legislators will shorten the length of time required to conduct police-involved death investigations.
“The lack of feedback in the process sometimes can cause emotions to smolder and worsen, creating increased stress, anxiety and anguish for all those involved,” State Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, told the Public Safety and Security Committee in testimony on a bill he sponsored that would expedite the investigations done by state’s attorneys.
Petit told the committee that timely updates during the investigative process might quell some of the emotions surrounding the tragic events.
New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart and former Police Chief James Wardwell were the only citizens who submitted testimony on the proposal at Thursday’s six-hour public hearing. Stewart had asked New Britain legislators to submit legislation to shorten the investigation process after five city officers shot and killed 20-year-old aspiring rapper Zoe Dowdell while trying to take him and two others into custody in December 2017.
State Rep. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, proposed similar legislation to the Judiciary Committee, but it has not been scheduled for a public hearing.
Dramatic dash camera video released 13 months after Dowdell’s death shows the 20-year-old trying to evade police by pulling his car around a utility pole and up onto the sidewalk, causing officers to jump out of the way. Five officers fired at the vehicle 28 times, hitting Dowdell in the head, neck, and legs, and hitting his front seat passenger 15-year-old Caleb Tisdol in the leg. The backseat passenger, 18-year-old Noah Young, was grazed with a bullet.
The families of Young and Tisdol attended protests in which people marched to the police station to demand the release of the videos, which had been withheld by the city at the direction of John Smriga, the State’s Attorney of the Judicial District of Fairfield, who was investigating the case.
Stewart told legislators in her written testimony that she knows all too well the toll that the 13-month investigation took on the city and the families of the three men shot.
“Families of both the deceased and the officers become agitated. Their loved one’s life is changed forever. There is no concrete answer to give them except that we must wait until the state is done with their investigation,” Stewart said.
The city’s motives were questioned by statewide activists who were suspicious that information was being withheld, Stewart said. The cost of placing the five officers on desk duty for 13 months was “significant” but not easily calculated, acting New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute said Friday. Each officer was acting within the detective bureau when the shootings occurred and other detectives had to take over their duties for more than a year, Chute said.
The five officers were allowed to return to their positions after Smriga’s report issued in early January said they were justified in their use of deadly force. An internal affairs report released earlier this month cleared the officers of violating any department policies.
While the officers were cleared of wrongdoing, the report concluded that the city’s policies and training were lacking in the area of felony stops. There was no ranking officer in command during the operation which was formed quickly the night officers spotted Dowdell’s car on the east side of town, according to the report.
Dowdell’s car was not completely boxed in by police, which allowed him to continue driving in an attempt to escape, the report said. The city has since formed a plan to provide more training and policy updates, the report said.
Stewart and Wardwell both asked the committee to consider shortening the length of investigations into police-involved deaths to no more than six months. Both conceded the change would require more funding for the Division of Criminal Justice.
“I do not advocate doing anything to impede the hard work of the state’s attorneys, but the forced lack of transparency is not acceptable,” said Wardwell, who retired a few weeks before the IA report was released. “Resources must be provided as needed to allow them to get this important work done in a manner that maintains the integrity of their process, but is also in a timely manner so our communities are kept informed to the fullest extent possible.”
Rather than suggesting a set timeframe, Petit told legislators that he believed timely updates that did not include specifics would address the problem. “An update might merely note that 25 percent of the process is complete and we hope to get a report to the public in three months,” Petit said.
Petit also recommended that a pool of money be set aside for a state’s attorney if a fatal-use-of-force investigation becomes bogged down due to lack of resources. But he also acknowledged, “that in these tight budget times, resources may be stretched very thin.”
Wardell said communication between the department and the community needs to improve.
“It is my opinion the current process, while necessary to ensure a fair independent investigation, did prevent our department from fully and openly communicating with the community we serve,” Wardwell said. “I remain a strong advocate for a separate external investigation as this does remove bias. However some remedy must be sought to allow for immediate communication regarding exactly what occurred in any fatal officer-involved shooting.”