BRIDGEPORT — An officer who has been on the Bridgeport police force since late 2016 has been placed on administrative leave after he was caught on video hitting a suspect in the back of the head Friday night with his department-issue gun.

A Bridgeport police report of the incident identified him as Officer Gianni Capozziello.

Friday night’s incident was the latest involving a police department rocked in recent months by issues involving cops accused of abuse and excessive force.

City Council President Aidee Nieves, who represents the East Side neighborhood where the encounter occurred, in a statement Saturday called it “unacceptable and disturbing.”

“No one should be treated in this manner, regardless of the crime,” Nieves said. “I have spoken with Chief (Armando) Perez and he has taken preliminary action to begin a thorough investigation.”

Her East Side colleague, Councilwoman Maria Valle, agreed.

“We cannot allow this treatment from our officers to our families and our community,” Valle said.

Video of the officer striking the suspect was posted by a Facebook user with the name Staxx Rivera around 1 p.m. Saturday and had been shared more than 200 times. Rivera, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, wrote on Facebook that the incident occurred on Jane Street, but did not specify a time.

Perez told Hearst Connecticut Media he was notified earlier Saturday, when Capt. Lonnie Blackwell, who oversees patrols in the East Side and East End, sent the chief a link to the 21-second Facebook video.

Mayor Joe Ganim, who said the only thing he has seen related to the incident is the video, called the Capozziello’s actions “outrageous.”

“If what I see is authentic and actually happened ... there is no excuse,” said Ganim, who is up for re-election. “This is outrageous.”

Ganim stressed that he had not seen the police report on the incident, nor any body camera or dashboard camera video.

“This calls for immediate termination and referral to the State’s Attorney for criminal prosecution,” Ganim said. “I’m not trying to inflame a situation, but this will not be tolerated.”

The officer’s account

Capozziello’s police report indicated that the incident happened around 9:45 p.m.

In his police report, Capozziello said he was on routine patrol on Barnum Avenue when he saw a red Volkswagen matching the description of a stolen motor vehicle. He said in his report a license plate check confirmed the vehicle was stolen.

Capozziello reported that he called dispatch and waited for backup, since he was alone in his vehicle, which is typically a two-person car. Capozziello said he had been following the vehicle without activating his emergency lights in an effort to prevent a possible pursuit.

When the driver — identified in the report as a 17-year-old Hanover Street resident — turned onto Jane Street, Capozziello said, he activated his emergency lights and siren and “began conducting a felony stop with my department issued pistol unholstered and at the ... ready.”

It is unclear when backup officers arrived, but the video shows at least one officer with Capozziello by the time he gets out of his cruiser and starts to approach the Volkswagen.

“I gave multiple verbal commands to the operator to stick his hands out the window,” Capozziello wrote in his report. “I observed the operator moving around and ducking under the seat in the vehicle and popping his head up while turning back to face me multiple times.”

On the video, the driver’s window appears to be closed as he is ordered to put his hands out.

When the driver got out of the vehicle, Capozziello said, he saw the 17-year-old drop both his hands to his waistline. In the video, the teen appears to be lifting up his pants. Capozziello said he feared the teen was “reaching for a weapon as he turned away from me in (a) quick manner with his right side facing away from me and (I was) no longer able to see his right hand.”

Capozziello said grabbed the teen’s wrist, and the boy “immediately began pulling away from me.”

“Fearing (he) was reaching for a weapon with his right hand and unable to holster my department issued pistol ... I utilized the magazine well area of my pistol as an emergency impact weapon,” the officer wrote in his report.

The teen was found in possession of “five glassine wax paper folds containing an off-white powdery substance,” Capozziello’s report said, indicating that it was consistent with packaging for heroin.

The teen was charged with possession with intent to sell, first-degree larceny, tampering with physical evidence and interfering with an officer. Since he is a juvenile, he was released into the custody of his mother, the report said.

This was not the first time Capozziello’s conduct on the job has been called into question.

On June 27, 2018, he was involved in an incident with City Councilwoman Karen Jackson’s son in which a Taser was used on the teenage boy. Jackson later filed a complaint against the officers, claiming excessive force. The status of that investigation was unknown Saturday.

In Capozziello’s reporting of that June 2018 incident, he said he used his Taser to hit the teen “multiple times with the bottom portion ... to the shoulder area,” adding that the teen “finally went to the ground after a struggle.”

Investigation underway

Perez said he contacted Deputy Chief James Baraja and Capt. Brian Fitzgerald, head of the detective bureau, and also sent the video to the Office of Internal Affairs for immediate investigation.

“Upon arrival to police headquarters, the officer was sent home on administrative leave with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation,” Perez said.

Sgt. Chuck Paris, head of the police union, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Perez said the driver was in a vehicle stolen that had been reported stolen in Westport. The chief emphasized the video clip on Facebook showed only a part of the incident and uniform camera footage would be reviewed to learn more of what happened.

Still, Perez found what he saw concerning.

“I will not tolerate anyone abusing anyone in that manner,” he said. “We want to be totally transparent.”

21 tense seconds

In the online footage, an officer can first be heard yelling “hands out the window” to a male subject in a red vehicle, pulled over on the side of the roadway.

The officer yells the command a second time, then “get your hands out the window” as he and another officer approach the red car on foot from out of camera frame. One officer approaches on the passenger side with his flashlight out, while the other heads for the driver’s side as the driver exits the vehicle.

As the driver gets out of the vehicle, the officer can be heard demanding the driver put his hands up and turn around. The driver appears to lift up his pants before putting his arms in the air, facing away from the officer.

But as the driver faces away from the officer, the officer tells him to “get the (expletive) on the ground” before the officer hits the suspect in the head with his gun.

When the officer hits the driver, the video shows the driver fall to the ground and the other officer approaches, flashlight in hand. The other officer can be heard telling the driver to put his hands behind his back.

Then the video ends.

City Council members Eneida Martinez and Ernest Newton, who represent the East End and frequently work with Blackwell on public safety matters, were both angered over the footage.

Martinez called it “totally disgusting” and “totally unacceptable.”

Newton said it is the type of behavior that defeats efforts to restore trust between residents and their police force.

“You see it point blank,” Newton said. “That was an aggressive police action. The man put his hands up, and he hits him,” Newton said.

The Bridgeport department — and Perez, whom Ganim made acting chief in 2016 and permanent top cop late last year — have been under intense scrutiny since the fatal May 2017 shooting of 15-year-old Jayson Negron by a rookie cop.

Though that officer was cleared of wrongdoing following a state probe, several other officers have since been involved in various scandals.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court alleged three members of the department used excessive force on three University of Bridgeport students in 2017 — on the same night a separate group of police officers used excessive force while breaking up a party on Colorado Avenue.

In its report on the latter incident, the Office of Internal Affairs found 17 Bridgeport police officers lied on official reports and violated regulations that night.

Meanwhile, the department continues to face questions over the arrests of 11 protesters and a Hearst reporter at a May 9, 2019, event marking the second year anniversary of Negron’s death. Most recently, the city refused to turn over uniform camera video from the incident.

The Rev. Cass Shaw is head of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, which since the Negron shooting has been pressuring Ganim and Perez to institute more training for police officers, particularly when it comes to defusing tense situations.

After watching the footage from Friday, Shaw said she commended Perez for immediately taking the accused officer off of the streets.

“This underscores the need for the Bridgeport Police Department to conduct effective de-escalation training,” Shaw said.