NEW BRITAIN – A 13-month investigation concluded that the five officers who shot and killed 20-year-old Zoe Dowdell were justified in their use of deadly force, even as dramatic dash camera video shows police continuing to fire as his car was driving away.
The officers fired a total of 28 shots. One bullet hit Dowdell, an aspiring rapper named “Gangstalicious,” in the back of the head, according to the state medical examiner who conducted the autopsy. A second bullet entered the back of his neck and came through his mouth. He was also shot in each leg. Dowdell was pronounced dead at St. Francis Hospital a short while after the shootings, which occurred on Dec. 14, 2017.
The report on the use of force released Thursday by Fairfield State’s Attorney John Smriga indicates that Detective Christopher Kiely and Detective Kyle Jones were in the path of Dowdell’s car as he tried to flee officers who had boxed his car in. Kiely and Jones were able to get out the way and each fired a few shots at the car, which kept moving. They were justified in their use of force because it was possible they believed their lives were in danger, Smriga concluded.
Dash camera videos taken from marked police cruisers show other officers continued to shoot as the car drove onto the sidewalk and around a utility poll after being struck by a police vehicle. Dowdell’s car had been stuck on a small embankment after being hit by police vehicles trying to stop his green Toyota Paseo. But it was freed when it was struck by another police vehicle who was trying to block the street so he couldn’t leave.
Dowdell was headed away from officers as they continued to fire, the videos show. An examination of the bullets fired was not able to determine which officer fired the shots that killed the 20-year-old, Smriga said. Officers can be heard on the video frantically trying to give medical aid to Caleb Tisdol and Dowdell.
The two men in the car with Dowdell, Tisdol, now 16, and Noah Young, now 19, have been charged with committing at least one robbery in New Britain. Tisdol is also facing multiple offenses, charged with armed robberies in Hartford, West Hartford, Wethersfield, North Haven, Windsor and East Hartford. Tisdol is being prosecuted as an adult in all but the New Britain case. The three were believed to be suspects in at least four violent armed carjackings and carjacking attempts in New Britain in the days and weeks before the shootings. During one of the incidents, the suspects fired shots from two different guns at a victim who fled, police said.
Family members of the men will speak Saturday at 11 a.m. at the location of the shootings, said activist Cornell Lewis. The families of Tisdol and Young are not pleased with the findings, said Lewis, an advocate who staged a remembrance of the shooting on the one year anniversary that was attended by Tisdol’s parents. “A response will be forthcoming from some of the family members soon,” Lewis said. “They need time to process this. I share their anguish over this decision.”
Tisdol can be seen on dash camera videos with his hands up as Dowdell tried to drive away as police opened fire. Young later told police that he crouched low in the back seat to avoid being hit by bullets.
Dowdell’s mother Sherene Fagon filed a $6.5 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city in September that was recently shelved by a federal court judge until Smriga’s investigation was completed. Her attorney Gerald Zack said in a statement that he had no comment until he read the report and talked to his client.
City officials called for healing after the report’s release.
“The loss of any life is tragic and painful,” said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart in a statement. “We have been praying, and continue to pray, for everyone involved. The families, the city police officers, and the community collectively have been anxious over the release of this report. Now that it has been released, we will take the opportunity to thoroughly read it.”
An internal affairs investigation will be conducted now that the report has been released, Stewart and Police Chief James Wardwell said. “The New Britain Police Department is thankful the investigation into this tragic event is over,” Wardwell said. “As we accept the findings of the independent investigation we also continue to pray for the life that was lost in this tragic incident, the families of those affected, and our community.”
Police were looking for Dowdell’s green Toyota Paseo the night of Dec. 14, 2017, after witnesses described the vehicle as the one involved in an armed carjacking attempt that included shots fired, according to court papers. The car was spotted on Newington Avenue and followed to Chapman Street where marked and unmarked police vehicles tried to box the Toyota in. Police reports indicate officers said Dowdell tried to run them over in an attempt to flee. Two guns were found in the car. One gun was loaded with four rounds, court papers said. There is no evidence to suggest any of the three attempted to use the guns during the incident, Smriga said.
The five officers have been on restricted duty for a year. Only one of the five received a one day suspension in 2007 for improper use of a department messaging system, otherwise they have not received any disciplinary action during their tenure as New Britain police officers, city officials said.
By state law, the investigation into the use of deadly force was turned over to a state’s attorney who handles cases outside New Britain. Smriga was given the investigation in April after the Middlesex State’s Attorney who was conducting the investigation was appointed to a judgeship. A separate state law required that Smriga file a report including all the evidence and all the circumstances leading up to the shooting. But ultimately it is the seconds before a police involved shooting that weighs the heaviest when a state’s attorney determines whether or not the use of deadly force was justified. Other circumstances such as a threat to the public are also considered.
Detective Michael Slavin was not in the path of Dowdell’s vehicle but believed that the gunfire he could hear in the chaotic scene was coming from the vehicle and not his fellow officers, Smriga said in the report. He fired nine shots at the car. Officer Marcin Ratajczak saw officers jumping out of the way and fired at the car “with the safety of all officers present on the scene and the safety of the public in mind” to prevent the driver from “causing serious physical injury,” the report said. Ratajczak fired 11 shots at Dowdell’s vehicle.
Detective Chad Nelson heard numerous shots and thought he saw the body of one of the officers dragged under Dowdell’s car. He also thought gunfire was coming from inside the car. He fired two shots. All three officers were justified in their use of force as they believed they were trying to stop fleeing felons who were a threat to the community, Smriga concluded. No further action will be taken by the Division of Criminal Justice on the case, Smriga said.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.