The New Haven Police Department released the findings of its Internal Affairs investigation Thursday on the SWAT raid on the Morse-Stiles Screw at the Elevate nightclub.
More than five months after the event took place City Hall Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 has released the report — written by the IA department on the basis of 25 student complaints, and reviewed by Smuts — on the Oct. 2 raid after reviewing the investigation and making recommendations to the Board of Police Commissioners. Although the report criticized the NHPD for mismanaging the inspection of the Elevate nightclub, Smuts determined that the raid did not merit any disciplinary actions, and recommended to the board that none be taken. But the NHPD has already begun to change policy and officer training in response to the Elevate fallout, said NHPD Chief Frank Limon, who was present at the raid, but not blamed for any misconduct in the report. Although the report sought to establish what had occurred — it provided evidence that the NHPD knew Elevate was hosting a Yale party — considerable ambiguity of the raid aftermath is far from resolved.
“It is very concerning that almost all civilians but not one officer testified that officers used profanity,” Smuts wrote in his cover memo on the report. “While profanity may have been permissible, the complete denial that it occurred — in the face of significant testimony that it did — is troubling.”
THE FINAL WORD
The report separated student complaints into four categories: verbal abuse, excessive force, unlawful detention and “other” (which centered around the officers telling students that they could not use cell phones during the raid). In the report, Internal Affairs Sgt. J. Wolcheski determined that “evidence fails to prove or disprove” whether verbal abuse occurred. The level of force and the temporary detention employed by the officers, he determined, were “justified.”
The report said that most of the mistakes made during the raid were a result of poor training. Responding to the denial of cell phone usage by police officers, including former Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez, Wolcheski wrote in the report that “the officer[s] received inappropriate or no training in how to perform the act properly.”
Limon and DeStefano both released statements shortly following the raid establishing that citizens may use cell phones to record officers. The NHPD has since formalized this idea in its “Video Recording of Police Activity by the Public” policy.
In a press conference at 4 p.m. on Thursday at the NHPD’s Union Avenue headquarters, Limon did not address the concerns of officer truthfulness, but he took full responsibility for his department’s failings in organization and planning during the raid. He pledged that the force will continue to improve its training and procedures per Smuts’ suggestions.
Limon was also quick to criticize Melendez, who led the raid.
“There was poor leadership, and poor planning, and we lost control of the inspection,” Limon told the News after the press conference. “They didn’t understand there were two clubs and had no idea of how many people were in the club: Once they started [the inspection,] they began to lose control.”
Melendez retired from the NHPD after more than 30 years on the force on Jan. 11, with a $124,500 pension. Another IA investigation released Thursday found Melendez violated NHPD policy by ordering an officer to take away a citizen’s video camera, erase the camera’s recorded video and arrest the citizen, in an separate incident in September.
Jaya Wen ’12, one student who was present at the raid and who has been a vocal proponent for student response to the incident, said she was not surprised that the chief and the report sought to lay the blame solely on the officer in charge, but she wished there were more recognition of a larger problem.
“I was hoping ultimately that it wasn’t going to be scapegoating,” she said. “What I hope is that there is some institutional recognition on the part of NHPD that there were a lot of choices that created a context where it was difficult to proceed in a way that was as effective and professional.”
The chief based his comments to the press on the 49-page IA report which was a summary of 25 student complaints and 22 officer statements. The officers included Limon, Melendez and Yale Police Department Lt. Joseph Vitale, who recalled telling the NHPD about the Yale undergraduate party in downtown New Haven on the night of the raid.
Although the IA department received 37 student complaints, the report says that the police disregarded 11 of them because the students “refused to cooperate with the investigation,” and an additional complaint was dismissed because the student had not attended the party.
Simon Chaffetz ’12 , one of the students listed as uncooperative in the report, said he was confused about why his complaint had not been included in the report. (Simon Chaffetz is a member of the News’ business board.) He said that he answered all police questions except for those pertaining to whether he had imbibed that evening, per the suggestion of a Yale-provided lawyer present at the time.
Although this might be construed as uncooperative behaviour, the police report said that refusal to answer alcohol-related questions did not qualify for dismissal of the complaint. Eighteen complaints were represented by attorney Patrick Noonan, the Yale-retained attorney, the report said, and none of those students responded to alcohol questions.
At least three complaints included in the report said that they saw one officer in SWAT gear strike a male student in the upper body or face without any violent provocation. But the report says this student “would not come forward after several attempts to contact him to confirm the alleged assault.”
The student, who wished to remain anonymous as he did not want to influence any future investigation or legal action he might take, told the News that he had only been asked once immediately after the raid to submit a complaint and he had never been specifically contacted to confirm the assault. Instead, the student added, he had been advised by Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry that he had a maximum of one year to submit a complaint.
Only two officers were in SWAT attire during the raid, the report said: Lt. Thaddeus Reddish and Officer Robert Strickland.
The report showed that Limon was also on the scene at Elevate, arriving at the club once many of the students had left. Normally the chief — not Smuts — would be in charge of reading the report and making his assessment, Richard Epstein, the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, said. However, because he was on site during the incident, the chief became a target of the investigation.
Based on the report, Smuts found that “there is no reason to believe that Chief Frank Limon engaged in any behavior that is the subject of the civil complaints.” However, he added that “once upon the scene the chief does have responsibility to use his rank and experience to judge whether subordinates were handling the situation properly and take any necessary action.”
Although the chief was not found to be at fault, one student said that he hopes the report will bring change in the department.
Zachary Fuhrer, and one of the four students who are still facing legal charges from the raid, said Thursday that he had been given the report by his lawyer, and that he sees it as a sign of reforms to come. (Fuhrer is a former Arts and Living editor at the News.)
“I find it incredibly encouraging that Smuts will be making policy changes as a result of this investigation,” he said. “This department needs a lot of reform. I hope all of our cases are dismissed, and I hope they begin to consider how willing and able [the officers] are to lie.”
The Board of Police Commissioners will meet next Tuesday evening to discuss possible disciplinary measures, Epstein said.
Danny Serna contributed reporting.