HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Facing protests and concerned about losing the community’s trust, Connecticut officials were unusually quick to release police body camera and surveillance videos of a shooting by two police officers, who opened fire on a young, unarmed couple in their car in New Haven last week, wounding a 22-year-old woman.
Community activists, including local clerics, say that the release of the videos showed good faith but that they want authorities to go further and fire both officers. More demonstrations are planned.
Public safety Commissioner James Rovella said it was unprecedented for police in the state to release such videos so early in an investigation into a police shooting. Around the country, police departments routinely withhold video taken by body-worn and dashboard-mounted cameras of officer-involved shooting and other uses of force, often citing broad exemptions to public records law.
“Anytime you’re dealing with a case like this, this gets an incredible amount of scrutiny,” New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin said Friday. He determined with Rovella that releasing the videos would not compromise the investigation. “We want to show the public the investigation is open and transparent.”
The recordings show two officers opening fire on a car when the driver tries to get out and put his hands in the air.
“We are trembling,” said the Rev. Dr. Boise Kimber, of the First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven. “We are in fear that even when we do the right thing, we can be killed.”
Hundreds of people, including Black Lives Matter activists, have demonstrated peacefully in New Haven and Hamden several times since the shooting, decrying police shootings of unarmed black people. The two people in the car, as well as the two officers involved, are black.
An Associated Press investigation this year found police departments routinely withhold video taken by body-worn and dashboard cameras.
In Connecticut, it has been standard practice by police and prosecutors to release video after an investigation report is completed, which can take months or more than a year in some cases, said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
Also, in Connecticut and other states, there are different standards, policies and practices in different law enforcement jurisdictions depending on who is in charge, showing a need for uniform laws and rules about releasing police videos, he said.
“Police should automatically release dashboard and body camera videos like this,” McGuire said. “The footage is not only owed to the public in terms of transparency … this footage being released in many cases is going to aid communities to understand what happened and aid in closure.”
The police body camera video of the April 16 shooting in New Haven shows a Hamden officer opening fire on 21-year-old Paul Witherspoon III as he tries to get out of the car with his hands up. The officer, Devin Eaton, then runs to the other side of the car and fires several more shots, blowing out the passenger door window and wounding Stephanie Washington, who survived. A Yale University officer also fired at the car.
State police have said the officers were investigating a reported attempted robbery with a gun at a gas station in Hamden earlier that night and stopped Witherspoon’s car, which matched the description of the vehicle provided by the gas station attendant. The officers opened fire when Witherspoon abruptly got out of the car.
Eaton and the Yale officer Terrance Pollack, are both on paid administrative leave pending the state police investigation, under normal protocols.
Rovella said neither Pollack’s body camera nor his dashboard camera was turned on, in apparent violation of policy, while Eaton turned his body camera on only after the shooting. The gunfire was still recorded, however, because the camera has a feature that recalls images from the moments before it is turned on.
Witherspoon’s relatives said there was no attempted robbery at the gas station. They said that Witherspoon got into an argument with a man who cut in front him in line, but that the attendant reported it to police as an attempted armed robbery. They have been calling for the attendant’s arrest.