AP NEWS

Recent police shootings breathe new life into transparency laws

May 2, 2019

HARTFORD — Three bills aimed at encouraging more transparency and accountability after police shootings have failed to get out of committee.

But a recent shooting during which officers from both Hamden and Yale University fired on an unarmed couple, wounding a woman, may lead to some version of the bills being resurrected before the end of the legislative session June 5.

Based on a 911 call, the officers believed the man, Paul Witherspoon, had tried to rob a newspaper delivery man with a gun on April 16.

A detailed search warrant released last week indicated that Witherspoon told police he was unarmed and was getting out of his car with his hands up as Hamden officer Devin Eaton and Yale University officer Terrance Pollock opened fire. Eaton fired 13 bullets, striking Witherspoon’s passenger, Stephanie Washington. Witherspoon has not been charged.

Less than a week later, Wethersfield officer Layau Eulizier shot 18-year-old Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, known as “Chulo,” as the teen tried to avoid being pulled over for a license plate violation. Vega Cruz died a few days later.

Both shootings have drawn loud protests calling for the release of dashboard camera or body camera video recordings — a practice that State Police and the state’s attorneys who investigate police shootings rarely allow until an investigation is complete.

In an unprecedented move, state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella released the body camera footage of the New Haven shooting to the public about a week after the incident occurred. Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy, who is investigating the Wethersfield shooting, said she will release what she can as her investigation moves forward.

“There’s more and more demand from the public for the early release of the videos,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. “We’ve given this issue a lot of thought in the past year.”

Kane’s office submitted public testimony on all three bills, expressing “reservations at the concepts as suggested.” But his office officially took no stance on the bills since the specific language of the proposed legislation had yet to be written.

Kane conceded last week that he and other law enforcement officials throughout the state are now considering releasing more information based on the public outcry. “We’re going to be making decisions about releasing information before the investigation is complete,” Kane said. “We want to explore this and see what happens and we’ll do some other cases, too.”

The move may circumvent the calls for legislative changes that would make the investigations more transparent, he also conceded.

House Bill 5757 was proposed by Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, after New Britain officials struggled with angry protests for more than a year while a state’s attorney investigated the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Bloomfield carjacking suspect Zoe Dowdell, who tried to flee city officers by nearly running them down.

Shocking dash camera videos of the shooting were released 13 months after Dowdell died and the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Fairfield concluded that the officers were justified in using deadly force.

The bill had a public hearing before the Public Safety and Security Committee in February. But the proposal, which sought to expedite the often lengthy investigations into deadly police shootings, was never reported out of committee.

Senate Bill 402, which would have created a state office to investigate complaints against police officers, suffered a similar fate, as did HB 5922, which would have required police departments to submit use-of-force reports for shootings and serious injuries.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said Thursday that he’s looking to make police videos available sooner than they normally would be available under current law and is still looking at use-of-force reporting.

“I haven’t nailed down the language, but I’m looking whether the use of force was appropriate for the given situation as well,” Winfield said.

He said the specific bills might be dead, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to raise and vote on these concepts.

Rovella said Thursday he’s hoping to create a statewide standard for transparency and the release of information, which he added, may require legislation.

New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, who worked under Rovella at the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, agreed to the release of the Witherspoon shooting videos after some appropriate investigative steps were taken, Rovella said.

“We were in contact quite a bit that week,” Rovella said. “The protestors didn’t influence us. There were some steps that had to be taken, but once we did that, we were prepared to talk about the case.”

During a press conference Rovella strung together some of the facts of the case including that the officers didn’t turn on their body cameras until after the shooting occurred, which he indicated was a violation of policy.

“Pat allowed me to stitch together the case which works to reduce questions, not increase them,” Rovella said.

Rovella, a former Hartford police chief, also pointed out that during investigations that involve communities of color the issue of trust is at the forefront. “The more information you put out in a timely manner the better,” he said.