The death of a man after his arrest by Stamford police early Wednesday and allegations that a state police trooper was at a bar drinking in the hours before he injured two women in a car crash has advocates for police transparency crying foul.
As the two departments wrestle over whether to release video under the provisions of a new police transparency law, a task force on police accountability created by the same legislation hasn’t been filled and hasn’t met yet.
“This is a task force that’s critically needed,” said David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union.
McGuire and his organization are advocating on behalf of the mother of the 23-year-old who died in Stamford police custody. The mother is asking police to release any dash camera or body camera footage of her son’s arrest and his lapse into medical “distress” at the police department.
City officials confirmed that the woman and a member of the NAACP were allowed to view a portion of the body camera footage Thursday. About 20 officers captured some of the event on body cameras, Mayor David Martin said. The videos will be available for public review after the family has had a chance to view all of them and the city receives authorization from the state’s attorney’s office, Martin said.
“Right now there is no other statute like it in the country that requires the production of video in such a short amount of time,” McGuire said. “If police use false pretenses to hide the video there is going to be an issue.”
SB 380 , now Public Act 19-90, was crafted in June after several high-profile police-involved deaths and shootings. The bill stipulated that police were required to release dash or body camera footage upon request no later than 96 hours after an incident and that a task force on police accountability would be seated and working on a preliminary report to be issued by Jan 1.
In accordance with the law, the video can be released upon request If an officer was involved in a deadly use of force, or any other incident that could lead to discipline. Portions of the law went into effect on Oct. 1.
“People were looking to the General Assembly this year to provide more transparency and accountability,” Rep. Steven Stafstrom, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said. “We received the support from law enforcement personnel. Folks know that when there is trust and accountability in respect to policing, it provides assurance to the public.”
State police initially declined to release body or dash camera video to Hearst Connecticut Media of officers responding to the scene of a crash caused by Trooper John McDonald in September on the grounds that it didn’t involve the use of deadly force.
McDonald was off-duty and had been at a retirement party at a bar with several other state troopers in his state-issued vehicle when he ran a stop sign in Southbury and T-boned a woman and her daughter, reports said. The impact of the crash pushed the woman’s car 20 feet, according to a lawsuit filed by the family against the trooper and the owners of the brewery. Both women were injured, reports said.
McDonald was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital but declined treatment there – a move that allowed him to avoid a sobriety test at the scene or a blood test at the hospital which would have revealed his blood alcohol content, according to state officials.
State police are conducting a multi-layered review of the crash including an internal affairs investigation, said Brian Foley, executive aide to state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella who oversees the state police.
When it was pointed out that the new law also stipulated “or if a police officer is the subject of a disciplinary investigation” in which a recording being considered as part of the investigation, state police agreed to release the video to Hearst.
At least one responding state police trooper wore a body camera, Foley said.
State police have not yet produced the video as of Friday morning.
In Stamford, police reported that they responded to a private residence on Tuesday at about 11:40 p.m. during a domestic dispute between a mother and her 23-year-old son. The son had left before officers arrived, police said in a statement. Based on the family’s account of the incident, the son’s arrest on domestic violence charges was warranted, police said.
The woman told the CT ACLU that she initially called police to get mental health assistance for her son.
The mother texted 911 to report her son had returned home at about 1:24 a.m. Wednesday, police said. Responding officer saw him fleeing on foot and located him hiding in a wooded area, reports said. He was taken to the Stamford Police Department to be processed for arrest but on arrival he was “in distress” and officers “immediately initiated a medical response from the Stamford Fire Department and EMS,” police said.
He later died at Stamford Hospital, police said. Acting Police Chief Thomas Wuennemann told Hearst Connecticut Media that the man was not assaulted or “tased” by officers and that police conduct was not being looked at as the cause of his death.
Stamford Capt. Richard Conklin said Thursday that the department was investigating the “untimely death of a 23-year-old.” He didn’t provide specifics on what areas of the incident were being investigated.
The man’s mother wants answers including video, police reports and call and dispatch logs, McGuire said. She was slated to meet with several city officials including Conklin, Wuennemann and the mayor Thursday.
The incident occurred two days after a Hamden police officer was charged with assault in the shooting of an unarmed man that seriously injured a female passenger in his car in April.
The police accountability law was designed to provide more transparency in situations like the Southbury trooper incident and the Stamford death, McGuire said. “There was an agreement of what this was,” McGuire said.
“Incidents like the one in Stamford are what this is for,” McGuire said. “We’ll be watching, and if we need to we’ll go back for the next legislative session and get this corrected.”
The first item the task force — also created by the law — was supposed to tackle was how police respond to situations involving a person with a mental, intellectual or physical disability.
Several legislators were required under the law to make appointments to the task force which would also include representatives from the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and the Office of Policy and Management Criminal Justice division.
A spokesman for House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who was to appoint two members of the task force, said there were still “a number of vacancies.” “We are still actively working to fill our appointments but a few potential candidates didn’t work out,” Larry Perosino, a spokesman for Aresimowicz, said.
Without volunteers to participate in the task force it has not met.
The deadline for the task force to file a preliminary report with legislative leaders on issues of police accountability they plan to review is Jan. 1.
“This issue is not going away,” McGuire said.