CT cops have fatally shot 24 people since 2013
DANBURY — Connecticut police officers have shot and killed two dozen people in incidents across the state since the start of 2013. None of those officers have faced charges for their actions.
After each incident and months or even years of investigation, state prosecutors have concluded that every officer who pulled the trigger in those cases was justified, according to a Hearst Connecticut Media analysis of state reports.
Experts and law enforcement sources predict investigators will come to the same conclusion about the death of 45-year-old Paul Arbitelle, who just before the New Year became the most recent person to be fatally shot by the police in Connecticut. A Danbury officer shot a knife-wielding Arbitelle three times during a brief confrontation.
But that final determination still could be months away, during which details of the incident will be withheld from the public amid the investigation. Last week, city officials denied a News-Times public records request for squad car and body camera footage from the incident, citing the ongoing investigation.
The shooting in Danbury and another police shooting last week in New Haven, which has left one man in critical but stable condition, have put the spotlight on how often Connecticut officers fire on suspects and the lengthy review process for such incidents.
In the 24 fatal police shooting cases since 2013, more than 14 months elapsed on average from the time of the incident to the date of investigators’ final public report, according to the Hearst analysis. Several took a few weeks or months, but just as many took two to three years.
The length of those investigations and the unanimous decisions in favor of cops’ actions highlights concerns both criminal justice advocates and law enforcement officials have with the state’s system of reviewing the most consequential decisions officers make.
During the state’s review, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour are not supposed to discuss details of the Arbitelle incident, much to their chagrin, both have said repeatedly.
But advocates argue timing is only part of the problem and that these incidents should be reviewed by an independent agency.
“Regardless of what happened or who the decedent was, everyone has an interest in whether we have a system in place to reliably and transparently tell whether something went wrong here,” said Dan Barrett, the legal director of ACLU Connecticut. “I think we all agree it should not be routine that municipal employees dole out the death penalty.”
Former New Milford officer Scott Smith was the first police officer in Connecticut to be tried for the murder of a suspect on duty after the 1998 fatal shooting of 19-year-old Franklyn Reid.
Smith eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminally negligent homicide after courts overturned a jury’s decision to convict him of first-degree manslaughter.
Former Hartford officer Robert Lawlor also was charged after a 2005 shooting that killed 18-year-old Jashon Bryant and wounded another man, but a jury acquitted Lawlor in 2009.
Arbitelle’s death in Danbury is believed to be the first on-duty police shooting in the city in more than 20 years.
It was one of only two fatal police shootings in 2018 but followed six fatal police shootings across the state in 2017, including the death of Kostatinos Sfaelos in New Milford and the high-profile death of Jayson Negron in Bridgeport.
There were nine fatal police shootings in 2013, including the death of John Valluzzo in Ridgefield.
Despite those numbers and recent years’ media and community focus on such incidents nationwide, fatal police shootings remain uncommon, said John DeCarlo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and the former Branford police chief.
They are a tiny percentage of the thousands of contacts the public has every day with the about 9,200 police officers and troopers across the state, he said.
“It’s statistically relatively rare, if you do the math,” DeCarlo said. “It’s infinitesimal and the number of wrongful shootings is even more infinitesimal. That doesn’t excuse bad police work, but it is very rare.”
When officers do shoot at a suspect, state police are called in to take over the scene and begin an investigation of the incident.
State’s attorneys from another jurisdiction than the department involved are then asked to review the case and determine whether the officer or officers who fired during the incident were justified in using “deadly physical force,” in accordance with a set of state laws outlining the process.
That exact procedure has taken place in both the Danbury and New Haven incidents.
Investigators then review a glut of evidence and testimony, from interviews and reconstructions from officers and witnesses to medical reports to body camera and surveillance footage. That process often takes weeks and months to complete.
It took the office of State’s Attorney Brian Preleski more than 10 months last year — shorter than the state average — to determine in December that East Hartford officers were justified in the February shooting death of Juan McCray after a high-speed chase. In that case, Preleski specifically noted that it wasn’t until the end of November that a local police report was finally completed and could be included in the report.
State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky said Friday that prosecutors must balance between releasing information that could taint a would-be court case and concluding the investigation in a timely manner for the police, victims’ families and public. In December, his office released its report ruling an officer’s fatal shooting of Sfaelos in New Milford should not be prosecuted about 16 months after the incident itself.
“We have an obligation under the rules of practice for attorneys, as prosecutors, to not talk about things that may become a court case that could then jeopardize something in that case,” Sedensky said.
During these state investigations, however, state police and local officials lock down details of these incidents until a final determination is made.
“I was always of the opinion a PD (police department) should be as transparent as possible,” DeCarlo said. “But I found very quickly as police chief that I did not always have the luxury of transparency once an agency like the state’s attorney came in, because they very often said, ‘You can’t give out any information, this is under investigation now.’ ”
“Cops act in a moment ... and investigators after the fact are in a situation where they do not have those demands put on them,” he continued. “They have that luxury of time and hindsight, and it should be that way.”
State police have released an outline of what occurred outside the Glen Apartments in Danbury on Dec. 29, but it was neighbors who filled in the fuller picture of who was involved in the incident and how officers encountered Arbitelle that evening.
State police have declined to release more information, citing the ongoing investigation.
When prosecutors and officials withhold details and frequently take more than a year to complete their investigations, the public loses its already thin ability to hold law enforcement accountable, Barrett said.
“The most obvious deficiency is that there’s no deadline,” Barrett said. “There are a lot of problems with this system, but timing wise, that’s the most obvious. There’s no timing requirement so they’re allowed to do whatever they want.”
Furthermore, the state does not require police departments to submit “use of force” reports to a central database on instances when officers draw their weapons, let alone shoot and kill someone, said Central Connecticut State University researcher Ken Barone, who manages the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. He helps examine racial bias in police traffic stops across the state.
Such reports — like those required when officers threaten or actually use a stun gun — would provide demographic information about how often officers use force and who is on the receiving end.
Without that information, advocates like the ACLU and academics like Barone cannot study specific data about whether people of color are disproportionately the targets of police force, as they believe from anecdotal study.
The lack of available data, lengthy timelines for investigations and overwhelming decisions in favor of officers make criminal justice advocates skeptical that the system of police oversight can be trusted.
“Everybody has an equal share in worrying about the outcome of these incidents,” Barrett said. “It may be possible in Connecticut to kill someone and have no repercussions at all, not even additional training.”