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‘Chaotic’ Bridgeport police episode reflects strained community relations

March 29, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Adrenaline pumping, Sgt. Paul Scillia raced from the East Side in his police cruiser.

On duty from 4 p.m. to midnight, Scillia was about an hour and a half from the end of his shift when he heard a 10-32 call signaling all available officers to respond. The sergeant sped to Colorado Avenue, lights on and sirens blaring, on Oct. 21, 2017.

He ended up being one of 46 cops there.

“It was a rough night,” Scillia recalled later in a 405-page Office of Internal Affairs report, released to Hearst Connecticut Media on March 6 after a Freedom of Information Act request in January.

Chief Armando Perez requested the investigation following two civilian complaints about police conduct that evening. The report told of excessive force and a lack of supervision by police, and of intoxicated and confrontational partygoers.

Seventeen officers and two civilian detention officers were cited in the report for violating Bridgeport Police Department policies. They were were referred to the city Police Commission for hearings on their conduct.

For some, accusations of Bridgeport police abuse didn’t come as a surprise. There had been other such instances in recent years.

In 2015, officers Elson Morales and Joseph Lawlor were each sentenced to three months in prison for stomping suspect Orlando Lopez Soto in Beardsley Park in 2011. A third cop, Clive Higgins, chose to have a trail and was acquitted.

In May 2017, rookie Bridgeport Police Officer James Boulay fatally shot 15-year-old Jason Negron. A report by Waterbury State’s Attorney Maureen Platt found Boulay was justified in firing at Negron, who the report said was driving a stolen car that was about to run over the cop.

Negron’s sister, Jazmarie Melendez, and others don’t trust the police investigations in Bridgeport. They say the Bridgeport Police Department murdered Negron — and 18-year-old Corbin Cooper, who died when a car in which he was a passenger crashed on Route 8 while being pursued by police in June 2018.

There have been demonstrations sparked by the teens’ deaths and what critics of the Bridgeport Police Department say has been a systemic lack of accountability.

“One of the main points that we’ve always been calling for is: These officers brutalize and then nothing happens to them and more damage happens,” Melendez said in a recent interview.

In early March, an unidentified group of people confronted Perez after the chief spoke at a mosque following the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand.

A video posted on Facebook showed a tense back-and-forth between Perez and an unidentified woman whose face was turned away from the camera. She questioned the chief about Negron and Cooper. He responded at one point by saying that they had received justice, and that Negron should have been cared for while he was living on the streets. The reference alluded to statements made by Melendez shortly after the teen’s death that he had been living in friends’ cars.

Perez said he regretted his response. And he has maintained that Bridgeport police are here to help.

“I want Bridgeport residents to realize we serve and protect them,” Perez said.

Mayor Joe Ganim said in a recent statement, “Generally speaking, the men and women of the Bridgeport Police Department have a very good relationship with the community.”

Opposing views

Accounts of the October night in 2017 differ, though, among police and the two Colorado Avenue partyers interviewed in the recent Internal Affairs investigation. In their report, investigators weaved those interviews with civilian video showing the party and police footage from inside department headquarters.

The word “chaotic” comes up again and again in the report.

“Everybody sees things a little bit differently,” Perez said. “Truth is what you perceive at the time that you are experiencing that event. You may not remember one thing, or you may not have seen something, but cameras catch it.”

Two calls were made that night to the Bridgeport police dispatch center.

“It really was a nothing call — a noise complaint,” Perez said later.

Officer Natalie McLaughlin was dispatched at 10:17 p.m., with another officer sent as her backup. Three minutes later, they found the party on Colorado Avenue and, they later said, were met with pushback from some of the 25 or so people at the party.

Peter Diaz and Carmelo Mendez filed civilian complaints a few days later, after being among the people arrested that night. They were the only party guests who agreed to speak with Internal Affairs investigators, and they have declined to speak publicly about the details of the incident since the report was released.

The two appeared in court Wednesday — their cases were continued — and Mendez said he has plans to sue the Bridgeport Police Department on a claim that he was assaulted by officers.

Mendez’s initial complaint to the department, included in the Internal Affairs report, indicated that police acted aggressively upon arrival at the party that night.

McLaughlin’s cover unit said otherwise.

“When we made them aware of the noise complaint Fernando (Morales, one of the party’s hosts) immediately became belligerent,” said an officer who was not cited for wrongdoing in the investigative report. “This behavior incited other party attendees to become belligerent by disobeying the repeated commands of officers to calm down.”

City Councilman Ernie Newton said Thursday that the encounter might have escalated at least in part because of cultural differences.

“A lot of our police officers come from suburbs. They don’t deal with the kind of stuff that happens in urban areas,” Newton said. “We’ve got some work to do in our police department.”

State Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, voiced a similar sentiment.

“We need people here who not only look like us, but understand us, who are organically from the community, who know who each and every single one of us are, so we can effectively work with law enforcement,” Bradley said Thursday, at an event urging the reopening of a dormant police substation on the city’s East End.

Ganim also said that many of the officers who responded that night were relatively new to Bridgeport’s police force.

Raising the stakes

McLaughlin, who called for backup on the night of the party, later told investigators she had hoped more officers would bring calm to the situation.

Instead, things got worse, and arrests quickly followed. In their complaints, Mendez and Diaz said officers were yelling at the party. Cops said partygoers were yelling and cursing, the Internal Affairs report said.

“If I yell at you, you’re going to yell at me — that’s just human nature,” Newton said. “We’ve got to do a better job on how we de-escalate situations, so they don’t turn into what happened at that party.”

But often encounters between cops and the urban communities are often framed by mistrust, in Bridgeport and elsewhere.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform through the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of police officers surveyed nationwide said their jobs always or often made them feel angry and frustrated. The survey found these officers were more likely to have physically struggled with a suspect or to have been verbally abused by a citizen in the past month.

“I think all residents in Bridgeport want a better relationship with law enforcement,” said City Councilman Kyle Langan, who along with Marcus Brown was elected more than a year after the Colorado Avenue party to represent that neighborhood. “Residents want to see police officers outside their cars, interacting with people ... People want to know their beat cop and have a relationship with their officers.”

Newton agreed.

“We’ve been working so hard to try to get community policing in our community,” he said. “That’s what it’s going to take in order to build trust between people and police,” he said.

Suddenly sideways

The Internal Affairs report said that when Officers Daniel Faroni, Thomas Lattanzio, Todd Sherback and Michael Mazzacco arrived at the party as backup, they were confronted by a crowd. A threatening statement from Fernando Morales prompted the 10-32 call, the report said.

At 10:27 p.m. McLaughlin and Sherback took Morales into custody. Wanda Mendez, the other homeowner, was arrested at about the same time. Diaz, who was in a wheelchair because of recent foot surgery, was arrested a minute later.

In Diaz’s complaint, he said he tried to get between Morales and the cops “to prevent anything from escalating.” Someone pulled Diaz back, although he didn’t know who it was, he told investigators.

Mazzacco said the N-word to Diaz in repeating back a phrase Diaz said to him earlier, according to the report. Daiz claimed to have that exchange on video, but the report said he did not provide it to investigators.

Mendez said in his complaint that people were arrested for “no reason.”

Sara Deida was arrested at 10:29 p.m. after she threw a beverage at several cops police said. In his complaint, Mendez said Deida was “slapped a couple of times” and dragged down some stairs. Video footage showed and officers told investigators that Deida resisted arrest, the report said, but it cited no proof of excessive force in her arrest.

The report said Officer Adam Szeps forced Mendez to the ground about 10:30 p.m. after he refused to leave. Szeps yelled “gun” after he saw a firearm on Mendez’s waistband, the report said.

In his complaint, Mendez said he yelled that he had a pistol permit. The questioned about the arrest said they didn’t hear that, the report indicated.

Lt. Robert Sapiro was seen on camera “observing other officers struggling to handcuff Mr. Mendez,” the report said. Officer Michael Stanitis, who joined the officers arresting Mendez, appeared to repeatedly hit Mendez with his flashlight, the report said. Investigators said the marks seen on Mendez’s face were consistent with wounds inflicted by the end of a flashlight.

Scillia, the sergeant drawn to the scene by the 10-32 call, kicked or stomped on Mendez and appeared on video to punch him, the report said.

Ganim said after the report was released earlier this month that since the party, Perez has cracked down on supervisors.

“You’ve got to have strong supervision,” Perez said of the incident. “The supervisors should have been more aware of what was going on. When they got there, they should’ve pulled everyone back.”

The department’s technology has been upgraded, too. In 2017, Bridgeport police did not have body or dashboard cameras, which might have clarified what happened at the party and possibly changed behaviors that night.

Last August, the city implemented a camera program, and state lawmakers announced on Thursday that the State Bond Commission would approve a reimbursement to Bridgeport of more than $1 million for equipment.

“Body cameras provide the public with transparency, and can work to improve the relationship and trust some members of the community have with law enforcement,” Bradley said in a release accompanying the reimbursement announcement.

“This funding will help protect both residents and police officers in our communities,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport.

Trouble in booking

After police broke up the Colorado Avenue party, chaos continued into the night at department headquarters. Typically, no more than two people are brought into the booking area to be processed at the same time. That night, eight people who had been arrested were brought in at once.

Sgt. Mark Belinkie, assigned to booking, was set to wrap up his shift at 10:30 p.m. He was working when Diaz was brought in by Faroni, who admitted to investigators that he briefly dragged Diaz when the man refused to cooperate. The Internal Affairs report said Belinkie intervened and told Faroni to help Diaz up and write a report about the dragging incident.

Another sergeant was to relieve Belinkie at 10:30 p.m., the report said, but had responded to the 10-32 and didn’t get to booking until 10:59. Belinkie left before 11, the report said, and the two did not cross paths, but Belinkie told investigators booking sergeants often don’t have a face-to-face switch.

While in booking, Scillia told investigators, he accidentally hit Diaz in the face and accidentally bumped Diaz’s injured foot, the report said. Diaz told investigators it was intentional. Video footage viewed by investigators appeared to support Diaz’s statement, the report said.

In his complaint, Diaz said Lattanzio “suddenly” punched him in the face. The report said surveillance video also showed Diaz spitting in Lattanzio’s face before the punch was thrown. Lattanzio later told investigators he “acted the way he did to protect himself.”

Diaz told investigators he had “six to ten straight shots” of Remy Martin cognac that night. The next day he remembered “some stuff and not everything,” he told them, according to the Internal Affairs report. He mentioned that he has short-term memory loss but didn’t think that was the reason for the gaps in his recollection, the report said.

The relief sergeant, who was not accused of wrongdoing in the report, told investigators he should have “gotten somebody up in booking to cover the flow of people that were coming in.”

A time of stress

The Office of Internal Affairs’ investigation into the party incident began on Oct. 24, 2017, and was led by Officer in Charge Lt. Brian Dickerson. The results were released to the chief and the mayor on Nov. 13, 2018.

Walter Signorelli, a former New York Police Department inspector and professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said internal investigations are taxing on those under scrutiny.

“It undermines your self-esteem; it’s very demoralizing,” he said. “You have a certain image of yourself, and your friends and family do, too — law-abiding, honest — and this puts that into question ... These officers are already being painted with a broad brush.”

The process can wear down investigators, too. Dickerson was transferred to a position with “less stress” earlier this month.

The officers named in the report were referred for hearings, unscheduled so far, in front of the Police Commission. Those sessions are to be closed to the public, as with other police disciplinary procedures.

Sgt. Chuck Paris, head of the police union, submitted a letter to the Police Commission on March 19 requesting 11 of the officers named in the report be subject to discipline by Perez instead of the commission.

Chairman Dan Roach said that request would be considered. As of Friday there was no announcement of a decision.

Perez said he couldn’t comment on the union’s actions, but he was concerned about a public rush to judgment.

“I’m worried that the entire truth of the event is not out there,” the chief said. “It’s not adjudicated, it’s not completed.”

Whatever the Police Commission decides about Paris’ request, Lattanzio, Belinkie and Sapiro won’t go before the commission. Lattanzio died by suicide on Dec. 4, 2017. Belinkie killed himself on March 2. Sapiro retired earlier this month, immediately after being promoted to captain.

In early March, state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, criticized the city for not releasing the report, nearly four months after it had been delivered to city officials.

Moore, who is running for mayor against fellow Democrat Ganim, said there was “no excuse” for the delay. She mentioned the two police suicides and said “Latinos’ civil rights were violated” by police.

The next day, the city released the report. But the city has yet to release the Internal Affairs report conducted after Boulay shot and killed Negron. A request sent last June was denied, with a note indicating the internal probe into his conduct remained active/open. An follow-up request for the report was submitted March 9; that request is still pending as of Friday.

On Thursday, Moore heralded the news of the city’s reimbursement for police dashboard and body cameras.

“The timing for this funding could not be better,” she said, “in light of the miscommunications between our police and our community.”