On Tuesday, Hamden and Yale police shot at two people who were in car in New Haven. Yale Police Department employee Terrance Pollock fired his gun. Hamden Police Department employee Devin Eaton shot Stephanie Washington, who was the passenger in the car. Hamden police arrested and released the driver, Paul Witherspoon, without charges. Both young people were unarmed, in a car that was stopped. For two days, Hamden police and city officials refused to release Devin Eaton’s name, and Yale police also took two days to release Terrance Pollock’s name. To date, both departments and city and university officials are still refusing to release body camera or dashboard camera footage, or any other information.
On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, People Against Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter New Haven, Justice for Jayson, and the CT Bail Fund hosted rallies to demand action: for the Hamden and Yale police departments to name the employees who shot Stephanie Washington and shot at Paul Witherspoon; for both departments to enact accountability for those employees; for the departments to immediately release full footage of the shooting; and for a complete, thorough, and transparent investigation from state’s attorney who is investigating the shooting.
Stephanie Washington is not the first young Black person shot by a Connecticut police department. Paul Witherspoon is not the only driver whom police here have shot at, a dangerous practice that other cities and states have banned. They are not the only young Black residents whose lives have been threatened, and in other cases taken, by police in Connecticut.
Every arm of the government has a role to play in ending police violence, because police are government actors whose authority flows from us, the people. Until our state and local governments stop abdicating their responsibilities and start ensuring democratic control over police, we will see police violence in Connecticut again.
These are the agencies and people who have a responsibility to ensure #JusticeForStephanie and to take democratic control over police.
The Hamden City Council (known as the “Legislative Council”) can listen to and join community members in calling for the police department to release body camera footage. As a body elected by the people to serve the people, the Legislative Council can and should have an active role in overseeing the police department. Local governments are supposed to ensure democratic control of town agencies, including opportunities for public hearings with input from town residents. Police departments should be included in that normal, basic democratic process – not in spite of the fact that they carry weapons and handcuffs, but especially because of that. The Hamden police employees’ collective bargaining agreement (the line-level police employees’ contract with the city of Hamden) was ratified by the Legislative Council in 2017 and is up for review in 2022. If the City Council wants, it can hold public hearings on that agreement and make sure the 2022 version includes provisions to create police accountability and transparency. The Council is also in charge of approving or rejecting the Mayor’s appointments to the Board of Police Commissioners, so councilmembers have the power to approve candidates who want genuine police accountability.
The Hamden Board of Police Commissioners can discipline, hire, or fire police employees and has the final say on police department policies. The Board of Police Commissioners consists of five people appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Hamden City Council to serve two-year terms. According to Hamden’s city charter, the Board of Police Commissioners is supposed to be a resident-controlled tool for oversight of police. The town charter states: "only the Hamden police commission has the sole power to appoint, promote and remove personnel from the Hamden Police Department.”
The Board of Police Commissioners also approves or disapproves Hamden Police Department policies, rules, and regulations proposed by the chief of police. So, the Board of Police Commissioners could have the final say, for example, on policies on body cameras, police pursuits, or shooting at people in cars. Under Hamden’s city charter, the Board can also impose discipline as a result of a recommendation from the Chief of Police OR due to a complaint from a member of the public, typically a Hamden resident, filed with the Board. So if a police employee brutalizes someone or violates their rights, the Chief of Police OR a member of the public could ask the Commission to mete out discipline.
Under the city charter, no complaint may lead to discipline from the Board if the complaint is filed more than 60 days after the event complained of. The police chief can discipline a police employee with suspension for up to five days; any more severe punishment must be approved by the Board of Police Commissioners first.
Right now, the Hamden Police Department (which includes the Chief of Police) has the power to release the body 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. There is also no contractual obligation for police to withhold this information, as the city’s collective bargaining agreement is silent on body cameras. Surveillance video 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.
Hamden’s Chief of Police is appointed by the Mayor and approved by the city’s Legislative Council. Right now, Hamden has an interim Chief of Police. The Mayor and Legislative Council are in charge of choosing the Chief of Police and can decide if that person should be someone who takes the department in a direction that stops police violence. According to Hamden’s city charter, the Chief proposes, in writing, policies, rules, and regulations concerning the department’s general management, operations, and conduct, which are subject to approval by the Board of Police Commissioners. The maximum penalty the Chief can impose on an employee is five days of suspension. In all cases, an employee can appeal disciplinary action from the Chief to the Board of Police Commissioners or skip the Board and go directly to the Mayor. Under the current city contract and charter, Hamden’s Chief of Police therefore has the power to propose policies that would require transparency and accountability when police hurt or kill someone, immediate release of body camera footage every time police shoot or kill someone, or prohibit employees from chasing or stopping cars in neighboring towns. They could also discipline an employee, up to a point.
Yale University and the Yale Police Department have the power to be fully transparent with the public about what role Yale Police Department employees played in Tuesday’s shooting. Yale’s Police Department exists because the legislature decided to allow it, so the department’s authority still comes from the people, albeit in a different way than town or state police departments. If Yale police have body cameras, the department can and should immediately release its footage of the shooting. As is the case with Hamden, there is no legal reason why Yale cannot release its body camera footage.
New Haven’s Mayor has called for policies from surrounding towns regarding when police from those towns, like Hamden, decide to enter the city. The Mayor and New Haven Board of Alders have the right and responsibility to keep up this call for other towns to stop over-policing and hurting their city’s residents, particularly at a time when New Haven is trying to create democratic control over its own police department.
The New Haven State’s Attorney is the prosecutor investigating this shooting. Connecticut law requires an out-of-district prosecutor to investigate when police shoot and kill someone, but not when police shoot and hurt someone. So the prosecutor, in this case, is the prosecutor from the same district as the Hamden Police Department. If the Hamden Police Department won’t release the body camera footage of the shooting, the New Haven 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, police have shot and killed at least 24 people since 2013. Prosecutors have never pressed charges against any of the police involved. The New Haven State’s Attorney has a responsibility to thoroughly, swiftly investigate this latest police shooting and should release every piece of evidence they examine, including complete body 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.
Police are government employees hired to do a government job. It is therefore the government’s responsibility to create democratic checks and balances to prevent police from hurting, killing, and violating the rights of the people they are hired to serve. In some cases, there are existing city and state rules about who governs which pieces of policing. And if those laws don’t match up with what people want to see from their local or state governments, we, the people, have the power to change them.
It is going to take every level of the government, and all of us as residents of this state, to create meaningful democratic control over police.