On April 20, 2019, Wethersfield Police Department employee Layau Eulizier, Jr. shot 18-year-old Anthony “Chulo” Vega, hitting him twice in the head, and shot at the young woman who was also in Vega’s car. Several days later, after being kept alive on life support, Vega died.
Since April 20, Vega’s family has been demanding answers, including the release of dashboard camera footage. To date, the Wethersfield Police Department has not even contacted Vega’s family. Wethersfield residents, members of Vega’s family, and Moral Monday CT are also calling for #JusticeForChulo by demanding police transparency and accountability for Eulizier and the Wethersfield Police Department.
For years, state and local government officials have had all the warning signs to know the Wethersfield Police Department is operating dangerously, without democratic checks and balances.
Since 2015, Connecticut has published an annual report about racial disparities in police traffic stops in the state. Of the 107 police agencies in Connecticut, Wethersfield is the only police department that has been flagged every year, and across every measure, for significant racial disparities in its traffic stops. The data also shows that Wethersfield police perform the suburban version of stop and frisk: the Wethersfield Police Department disproportionately stops motorists along the town’s border with Hartford. Wethersfield police also stop people near the Hartford border for things like equipment or paperwork violations – stops that have historically been linked to pretext enforcement – at a much higher rate.
Anthony Vega, a young Latino man, was a motorist stopped by Wethersfield police employees near the Hartford border because they claimed his car and license plates didn’t match. Then they shot him.
Wethersfield police chief James Cetran, who is also the president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, the lobbying arm for police departments in Connecticut, has refused to acknowledge the possibility of racial disparities in his employees’ traffic stops. According to a letter Cetran wrote to the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project in 2017, he believes racial profiling is only possible if the police employee says that race was the sole reason for a stop. This is completely illogical, and it doesn’t reflect the law or the reality of how racism works. It’s certainly racial profiling if police say they are stopping people because they are Black. But it’s also racial profiling, for instance, if police only or overwhelmingly pull over Black drivers for license plate issues and never stop white drivers for the same thing. Police must have a reasonable suspicion to pull someone over, but they also have to enforce the law in a racially neutral way – the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments are both the law of the land.
Vega is not the only young Latino man killed by police in Connecticut. He is not even the only young person of color shot by police in Connecticut last week. Police violence against people of color is a pandemic, a public health crisis, and a failure of our democracy.
Stopping this pandemic is going to require action from every government actor, at every level of government. Here are the government agencies and officials who can take action, right now, to end police violence by taking democratic control over the Wethersfield Police Department.
The Wethersfield Town Council has the power to investigate the police department and to require any police department employee to appear before the Council or to produce any piece of evidence for the Council. So, Wethersfield councilmembers can listen to Vega’s family and make an employee of the police department appear before the council and produce the dashboard camera footage of the shooting. The council also controls the police department’s budget, rules, and policies, and could enact a rule requiring police to immediately release footage in use of force incidents, for instance. As a body elected by the people to serve the people, the Wethersfield Town Council has the legal duty and democratic obligation to oversee the police department.
Wethersfield’s Town Manager has the power to appoint or fire any employee of the police department, including the chief. The Town Manager serves as the Director of Public Safety for the town, which means they also have the power to approve or reject police department rules, protocols, and policies, as presented by the Chief of Police. So if the Town Manager wanted Wethersfield to adopt policies preventing police uses of force, car chases, or requiring immediate transparency in use of force incidents, they could request those policies from the Chief of Police. The Town Manager also is in charge of disclosing the terms of the Wethersfield police employees’ collective bargaining agreement (the line-level police workers’ contract with the town of Wethersfield) to the Town Council. The current agreement was ratified by the Town Manager in 2015 and is set to expire on June 30, 2019. If the Town Council wants, it can hold public hearings on that agreement and make sure the 2019 version includes provisions to create police accountability and transparency.
Right now, the Wethersfield Police Department (which includes the Chief of Police) has the power to release the dashboard camera footage of the shooting. There is no legal reason for police to withhold this information from the public, and it is the department’s obligation to be transparent with the people who pay its bills. Other footage of the shooting is already circulating in the news and on social media. The police department’s refusal to release body camera footage is a deliberate choice to stifle public oversight of it.
Wethersfield’s Chief of Police has the power to discipline and fire police department employees, and to propose police department policies, rules, and procedures, which must be approved by the Director of Public Safety (Town Manager). So if the Chief of Police wanted, he could propose policies designed to stop police violence, stop racial disparities in police traffic stops, and create transparency and accountability for police employees. To suspend a police employee for longer than 10 days or to fire someone, the Chief would need approval from the Director of Public Safety (the Town Manager).
Voters in Wethersfield have the unique power to directly propose town ordinances. So, for instance, Wethersfield voters could come together to create a proposed town ordinance to require police to immediately release footage in use of force cases. To do so, voters would need to write the full proposed ordinance, gather signatures from at least 5 percent of the town’s registered voters, and present the ordinance, list of signatures, and a request for its adoption to the Council. Following signature verification from the Town Clerk, it would then be up to the Town Council to either vote to adopt the proposed ordinance or to put it to the town for a vote.
The Hartford State’s Attorney, Gail Hardy, is the prosecutor investigating this shooting. Connecticut law requires an out-of-district prosecutor to investigate when police shoot and kill someone. Wethersfield is in the New Britain judicial district despite being only a few miles from Hartford. If the Wethersfield Police Department won’t release the dashboard camera footage of the shooting, the Hartford State’s Attorney can and should, immediately. The shooting has already taken place, some privately-captured footage is already public, and releasing complete footage does not harm the investigation – but refusing to release it further harms a community in pain.
In Connecticut, according to news reports, police have shot and killed at least 24 people since 2013. Prosecutors have never pressed charges against any of the police involved. Hardy, the prosecutor in this case, most recently took more than three years just to release her report into the East Hartford police beating and tasing death of Jose Maldonado. Hardy has a responsibility to thoroughly, swiftly investigate this latest police shooting and should release every piece of evidence she examines, including complete dashboard camera footage. If the State’s Attorney decides not to press charges against the Hamden police employee in this case, it is also important for the press and public to remember that is not an “exoneration”— it is simply an announcement that the State’s Attorney will not prosecute.
Every legislator in the Connecticut General Assembly should, right now, work to pass a bill requiring every police department to report its uses of force, including car chases, to the state. Right now, no one knows for sure how many times police in Connecticut hurt or even kill people. While the state collects and reports data about how many times police tase people or pull people over, it does not do the same for when police fire a gun, beat someone, or endanger people’s lives by chasing someone with a car. The legislature has a big role to play in creating democratic control over police, and it can start by requiring this basic piece of transparency.