NEW BRITAIN - After a bruising 13 months that included public rallies and the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the city, Mayor Erin Stewart has asked the state’s legislative delegation to consider pushing changes to the way fatal shootings involving police are investigated.
“We have unfortunately experienced this OIS [officer-involved shooting] process first hand, the system in place now, in my opinion, is not transparent and unintendedly diminishes police legitimacy,” Stewart told New Britain legislators in a memo. “This is not due to police department-level decisions, but at the court and state level processes.”
The city faced scrutiny and calls for greater transparency after the two state’s attorneys who were assigned to investigate the shooting death of Zoe Dowdell instructed police not to release any information or recordings about the incident.
The 20-year-old Dowdell and his passengers, Caleb Tisdol, 15, and Noah Young, 18, were shot by New Britain officers on the night of Dec. 14, 2017, as they were trying to flee. Police said Dowdell nearly ran over two officers as he tried to escape. Five officers fired 28 shots at the car, fatally injuring Dowdell. Tisdol was shot in the leg and Young was grazed by a bullet.
Stewart suggested in her memo to state Reps. William Petit Jr., Peter Tercyak, Rick Lopes and Bobby Sanchez that the investigations need to be made a top priority and given a reasonable time limit.
“We are not suggesting an unfunded mandate or shortcutting the process, rather, suggesting the state allocate appropriate funds to make sure the resources are in place to make sure investigations like this are concluded in normal circumstances within six months,” Stewart wrote in the memo. “The toll on the community, the affected families and our police agencies is just too high when these investigations are prolonged. This timetable will no doubt have a cost, but it is a cost that is necessary to address so many societal concerns in a more responsive yet fair manner.”
By state law, the investigation into a fatal police shooting must be done by a state’s attorney from another jurisdiction. Middlesex State’s Attorney Peter McShane was assigned the investigation immediately after the shootings. But the investigation was reassigned four months later when McShane was named a judge.
Fairfield State’s Attorney John Smriga, who ultimately conducted the investigation into the shootings, announced last week that the five officers had been justified in their use of deadly force. Up to that point, Dowdell’s family had not been allowed to view the dashboard camera videos of the shootings or any other information regarding their son’s death. Dowdell’s mother has filed a $6.5 million civil rights lawsuit against the city and the Police Department.
Police Chief James Wardwell released all patrol recordings and police reports connected with the shootings Tuesday.
As the investigation dragged into September, activists staged two rallies seeking the release of the dash cam videos that were attended by relatives of the men who were shot. Wardwell could do little but keep local ministers and the local NAACP chapter updated on arrests made in crimes alleged committed by the men who were shot or minor developments in the investigation, since he was told the release of any information would taint the process.
“I am an advocate for the current legislation. I believe it’s imperative that an independent investigation occurs in a fatal officer-involved shooting,” Wardwell said. “However, having experienced this OIS process firsthand, especially when it comes to the length of time an investigation likes this takes, our agency’s ability to be transparent and have open dialogue with the community is effectively eliminated. There has to be some middle ground reached so there can be an independent investigation with a time limit so the community knows the end is coming.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.