Every time I run across a story like this, I cringe in disgust but eventually shrug it off. After all, why should we be surprised that bad cops misbehave and too many good cops either make excuses for them or, in some cases, actually try to provide cover?
The latest incident occurred last month in Oxford where, in an unmarked state police vehicle, a Connecticut state trooper left a party at the Black Hog Brewing Company, ran a stop sign and slammed into another vehicle with such force that it was pushed 20 feet into the woods and the injured mother and daughter inside had to be extricated from their car.
That would be bad enough, but the subsequent handling of the incident by state police leaves many unanswered questions. It appears the trooper, 39-year-old detective John McDonald, was not subjected by responding officers to standard procedure.
Not long after the incident, a reporter from the Republican American, which has been a leader in its coverage of the reckless trooper, asked a state police spokesman whether Sgt. McDonald had been given a field sobriety test. The flak abruptly hung up the phone.
Only later did it come out that, “Medical treatment on scene of an accident supersedes immediate need for a field sobriety test,” according to Brian Foley, another state police spokesman, but evidently not the one who had rudely refused to answer a routine question from a journalist.
Whether that is indeed the policy, the fact remains that because the police did not give this reason at the outset, it looks like they were simply searching for an excuse after the fact. Indeed, an attorney for the injured Conroy family is convinced McDonald was taken by ambulance to the hospital as cover to “hide his level of intoxication.” The lawyer filed a lawsuit this week and said he intends to depose state troopers under oath. He warned that his search for evidence could take a year or more.
Witnesses told the paper at least 20 troopers, including supervisors, partied throughout the afternoon at the brewery. Some of the impaired troopers arrived and departed in state-owned vehicles — a clear violation of the state police “zero-tolerance” policy against drinking and driving in state vehicles, as spelled out on page 85 of the union contract. Meanwhile, McDonald has been issued another state vehicle and is back at work.
Police initially told a relative of the victims there was no police-vehicle or body-cam footage available of the incident. Foley later told the Republican American some video did exist but police have not responded to the paper’s freedom-of-information request for footage.
Foley did say an internal affairs investigation was underway. I wish I could say that makes me feel better but it is hardly reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Unless the Connecticut State Police internal affairs unit has reformed itself, we should all be concerned about whether IA can conduct a competent and impartial investigation.
Has anyone already forgotten the scathing 2006 report by state and outside authorities on the internal affairs division of the Connecticut State Police? That 168-page report found, in the words of the Hartford Courant, “the very structure designed to promote integrity within the department to be riddled with misconduct and improper influence.” The embarrassing report was produced by the state attorney general’s office and the New York State Police, which is internationally recognized as a leader in internal affairs.
Lest we believe IA has reformed itself since those dark days, think again. The relatively recent case of Michael Picard should give us all pause. Picard and a friend set up shop on the side of the road in West Hartford in 2015, warning motorists of a state police sobriety checkpoint ahead.
A trooper quickly descended on the pair, claiming that someone had complained about a pedestrian waving a gun. The cop falsely told Picard it was illegal to photograph them. He confiscated Picard’s camera and his handgun, which was holstered and for which Picard had a permit and was carrying legally.
The trooper returned to his colleagues up the road but neglected to turn the camcorder off. So we were treated to the spectacle of troopers, two of whom were supervisors who should be setting an example, conspiring about what to charge Picard with after they were disappointed to learn that he was licensed to carry a pistol in Connecticut. An ACLU complaint accused the troopers of “fabricating criminal infractions.” A federal judge recently agreed to allow portions of that lawsuit to move forward, paving the way for a trial.
“Have that Hartford lieutenant call me,” one trooper said in the video. “I want to see if he’s got any grudges.” Another trooper added, “Gotta cover our ass!”
In violation of a subsequent state Supreme Court ruling, State Police initially refused to release the resulting internal investigation report that, it turns out, was a whitewash that exonerated the cops and failed to even to address the subject of the trooper falsely claiming “It is illegal to take my picture!”
So pardon me if I’m skeptical about whether the Connecticut State Police internal affairs unit has reformed itself. The only way that will happen is if the good cops ostracize the bad ones, stop covering for them and advocate for transparency in cases of police misconduct. Of course, it would help if state police personnel files and internal affairs investigations did not enjoy an exemption from the state’s freedom of information laws.
It’s likely that video footage will surface eventually, if not from McDonald’s state-issued car, then from adjacent homes or businesses. Any internal affairs investigation should also look closely at the state police supervisors who allowed this party to happen. After all, a party with dozens of troopers occurred in broad daylight at a brewery that under state law can’t sell food.
But most importantly, McDonald cannot be allowed to get away with the kind of reckless behavior that would land you and me in jail.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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