After protesters stormed City Hall on Tuesday to rally against an incident of police brutality, Mayor Toni Harp announced that she had directed New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman to remove the officer in question from patrol duty.
After protesting on the steps of the NHPD headquarters Monday evening, more than 20 protestors continued efforts on Tuesday afternoon when they entered City Hall, demanding to meet with the mayor. They were responding to a video from March 15, which showed New Haven police officer Joshua Smereczynsky pushing a handcuffed 15-year-old girl to the ground during the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Following the incident, the NHPD launched an Internal Affairs investigation but did not make any public statements about the incident.
When the protestors refused to leave City Hall Tuesday, Harp addressed their concerns, telling them that she had asked Esserman to put Smereczynsky on desk duty until the completion of the internal investigation.
City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer told the News Wednesday evening that no formal statement had been made by either the city or the NHPD, but that Harp had asked for a change in the officer’s status to effect a “cooling-off period.” The change was effective immediately, he added.
In response to protestors’ demands that the charges against the girl be dropped, Harp said she did not know the details of what happened on March 15.
“This is a matter under investigation,” she said. “We will wait for that.”
Harp told protestors that she had seen the video sparking the community’s outrage, adding that police are reviewing additional footage of the incident as part of their investigation. Grotheer said he did not know how long the independent review would take.
Barbara Fair, one of the protest organizers, said that while she was pleased with Harp’s response, she was frustrated when the protestors were initially told they would need to make an appointment to see the mayor. The appointments need to be booked three weeks in advance.
“When [Harp] was running for mayor, she said something that would be different [from previous administrations] would be an open-door policy, so it was very disappointing to be told to wait,” she said.
In a video of the protesters inside City Hall, several alleged that the NHPD’s response to the incident was racially motivated. According to the protesters, the NHPD did not respond when they asked why Smereczynsky had remained on patrol even though Najea Poindexter, an officer under investigation after her boyfriend was arrested in January for driving her car without a license and was later found to be in possession of drugs, was placed on desk duty, then barred from the police department. Protestors claimed that Poindexter’s race influenced the decision. Smereczynsky is white, while Poindexter is African-American.
Harp conveyed to protestors that Esserman argued that the two incidences were very different.
However, the complaints stretched beyond the police’s current investigation. Protestors claimed that the incident could have been prevented by the school and police department responding to prior reports of bullying in the girl’s school.
“She was being bullied, now she’s being bullied by the police,” one protestor can be heard saying in a video of Harp’s response posted on Youtube.
Even though Fair said the protestors left thankful for Harp’s response, New Haven police union president Louis Cavaliere Jr. was not as pleased. He told the New Haven Independent that Harp’s announcement was “a total slap in the face of the rank-and-file officers of [the] department,” adding that he believed the mayor was too heavily influenced by the protestors.
“She bowed down to an angry mob,” he told the Independent. “This mayor should have used her backbone and stood up for what is right.”
However, with the internal inquiry still pending, it remains unclear what the future of the case will be.
Moving forward, Fair said she hopes Harp will be able to initiate an independent review board for sensitive internal inquiries. She said the city has been working on one, but that there have been continuous delays that have caused unrest and distrust.
“We do not trust the police to police themselves in situations like this,” she added.
The Civilian Review Board, which provided a venue for New Haven residents to air complaints regarding police conduct, held its last meeting in September. The meetings have since been suspended for review.