HARTFORD – The Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union and the parents of a man shot and killed by New Britain police last year are challenging the recommendation of a state hearing officer to withhold all evidence gathered the night of his death.
In a ruling released late month, a state Freedom of Information hearing officer recommended withholding the evidence from Shawn Dowdell and Sherene Fagon, the parents of 20-year-old Zoe Dowdell based on the Oct. 3 testimony of Fairfield State’s Attorney John Smriga who is investigating the police use of force in the shooting.
Smriga told the hearing officer that releasing the information could impact his investigation and influence witnesses who had yet to be interviewed. The Connecticut ACLU filed Friday an objection to the entire FOI Commission adopting the hearing officer’s recommendation. The challenge to the recommendation will be argued on Dec. 19.
“Both the New Britain police and the state police never looked at the records and didn’t know everything that was in them,” said Connecticut ACLU legal director Dan Barrett who is arguing the case for the family. “Based on a recent Supreme Court ruling, we don’t think the commission is going to say that they are able to deny information that they don’t even know they have.”
Dowdell was killed the night of Dec. 14 after state police said he drove at New Britain officers on foot who were trying to take him and two others into custody. Police were looking for Dowdell’s car that night because they believed it had been involved in a series of violent armed robberies that had plagued the city in the days and weeks before the police shooting.
Caleb Tisdol, 15, and Noah Young, 18, were also shot but not seriously injured. Tisdol and Young were later charged with one robbery in New Britain. Tisdol is facing several other armed robbery charges related to crimes that occurred in East Hartford, Hartford, West Hartford, Windsor, Wethersfield and North Haven.
Dowdell’s parents filed separate FOI complaints in March when they were denied access by the city and by the state police to the dash cam videos from the night of the shooting. The city and state police also denied releasing 911 calls, reports and any other evidence related to the shootings on the grounds making the information public could prejudice Smriga’s investigation.
The parents of all three men have been vocal in asking for the release of the videos and information regarding the case. Smriga was handed the use of force investigation in April after the previous State’s Attorney handling the investigation was appointed to a judgeship.
Smirga told FOI officials during an Oct. 3 hearing on the Dowdell family complaint that he had not yet reviewed all the evidence regarding the police shootings. He also said he was never handed the FOI requests until the day he was to testify before the commission and never issued a denial but would have if anyone asked for the release of information related to the case.
The attorneys representing the families of Tisdol and Young were provided the dash cam videos to prepare for their defense
The arrest warrants for Tisdol and Young, a search warrant listing all the items gathered the night of the shooting, including the number of bullets police fired, and 12 emails to the five officers who fired their guns that night and to the New Britain Deputy Chief of Police have been the only information available to the public since the night of the shooting.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.