The legislature is coming back into session soon, and there’s plenty of chatter about what might be on the agenda. But one thing we’re not talking about nearly as much as we should be is the need to keep pushing police reform. The recent shooting of Mubarak Soulemane, a black New Haven teenager, by a white state police officer is but one of the many reasons why.
Here’s what happened: On Jan. 15, Soulemane allegedly stole a car in Norwalk. State police then tailed him in a high-speed chase all the way from Norwalk to West Haven, where they blocked the car under a bridge. State troopers surrounded the car, guns drawn, shouting commands at Soulemane. One trooper bashed on the passenger side window, eventually breaking it.
And then one of the troopers shouted that he’d seen a knife, and opened fire. Soulemane was hit in the chest and the arm.
After that, the trooper took his gun and calmly cleared away the wreckage of the window he’d just shot through. He grabbed a small, slender object – presumably the knife – and placed it on the hood of the car.
I know this because, thanks to laws that require body cameras, we have video evidence. I watched it.
I have so many questions.
The first question is why the state police decided to engage in a high-speed chase at all. High-speed chases are incredibly dangerous, not just to police and suspects, but to innocent bystanders. Since 1979, about 5,000 innocents have been killed as a result of police chases, most because a scared, fleeing suspect crashes into their cars. The ACLU of Connecticut released a statement after Soulemane’s death: “When police choose to chase someone in a car, they are escalating a situation and endangering the lives of police, pedestrians, and all motorists on that road.”
That’s exactly what happened last summer in Enfield. Police attempted to stop a truck for a minor traffic violation. Instead, the driver sped off, leading police on a dangerous high speed chase up busy Route 5. Just after the Massachusetts border, the driver crashed into a postal vehicle. The driver was killed, but tragically so was postal worker Dan Nacin. Dashcam footage obtained by the Springfield Republican shows police pursuing the truck at speeds up to 74 mph. All over a traffic violation!
Did state police have a good reason to chase Soulemane? Why are police still engaging in these chases if they’re so deadly?
Another question I have is about what happened after the chase came to an end. Troopers immediately exited their cars with guns drawn, shouting at Soulemane and banging on the passenger side window.
They treated him as if he were a dangerous wild animal instead of trying to de-escalate the situation. Why did they act this way? Why didn’t they at least try to let him get out of the car and surrender?
And then – the shooting itself.
Why did the officer open fire on a young man who was still sitting in the car, a metal door and shut window between himself and the police?
Why did the officer use deadly force when he saw what he thought was a knife, especially if Soulemane was in no position to use it?
Why did no one change expression and say “Oh my God,” or “Why did you do that?” when Soulemane was shot?
Why did the taking of a human life feel so matter-of-fact?
What role did race play in this?
Why does this keep happening? How do we stop it for good?
I know some of the answers we’ll get, sadly. There’s a script the police and their defenders too often follow: The officer thought his life was in danger. The kid in the car made some kind of move. The kid was no saint. He stole a car; he was a criminal. The officers chased him because he was driving dangerously. He should have listened to the police. The officers followed department protocol.
But Soulemane isn’t responsible for his own death. The man who pulled the trigger is. Stealing a car isn’t justification for a death sentence. And maybe department protocols need some dramatic change, if this is the end result.
The public deserves answers – real answers. If we don’t get them, then the legislature needs to act.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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