Tensions ran high at City Hall on Friday afternoon, where the results of an internal New Haven Police Department investigation left police officers and community activists standing in opposition for over an hour.
On March 15, 15-year old Teandrea Cornelius was aggressively pushed to the ground by New Haven Police officer Josh Smereczynsky in an arrest outside the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in downtown New Haven. In a video of the arrest, which occurred during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Smereczynsky can be seen finding a knife in her purse after slamming her to the ground. Contrary to the claims of anti-police protesters, police officers at the protest said the officer was already aware that Cornelius was in possession of a weapon when he handcuffed her.
The incident, which was recorded in a video that was then posted online, triggered an internal NHPD investigation and caused Mayor Toni Harp, last Tuesday, to request that Smereczynsky be taken off patrol while the investigation continued. But in a Friday afternoon press conference at City Hall, NHPD Chief Dean Esserman said the internal investigation resulted in Smereczynsky’s exoneration.
Esserman said Smereczynsky “followed the training he received” at the Connecticut State Academy in Meriden, where many Connecticut police officers are trained. He said Cornelius was found to have an unspecified weapon on her person, and Smereczynsky’s training mandated that he respond with the much-criticized “slamming.” Esserman added, however, that officers trained by the NHPD itself often do not follow the same protocol.
In the middle of Esserman’s remarks, just after he announced that Smereczynsky had been exonerated, roughly 80 pro-police protesters entered City Hall and climbed the stairs to the press conference on the second floor. Esserman, visibly distressed, retreated from the podium. Holding signs and wearing T-shirts in support of Smereczynsky, the protesters chanted “You let us down” and “Due process.” Esserman and Harp were silent as the protesters — current and retired police officers, family of Smereczynsky, friends and supporters — dominated the room. Smereczynsky’s mother held up a sign proudly declaring support for her son and demanding that he receive justice.
Addressing Esserman and Harp at the scene, police union leader Louis Cavaliere Jr. said the police officer had been treated unfairly over the course of the investigation. He criticized Harp for calling Esserman and asking for Smerecyzynsky to be put on desk duty when protesters stormed her office on Tuesday. Then, he accused his own police chief of succumbing to the pressure of “angry mobs” by visiting Cornelius’s family to make an apology without providing an apology to Smereczynsky for his demotion to desk duty.
“We feel badly disrespected, and our backs were turned against — we really felt we were abandoned on this,” he said.
After Cavaliere made his statement, the pro-police protesters began to chant overtly against Esserman and Harp. “New mayor, new chief,” went one slogan; “We want a mayor, not a puppet” was another.
Harp and Esserman declined to comment on the rally.
In a prepared statement, Cavaliere said that the anti-police climate across America is reaching an all-time high.
“Police officers everywhere need to know that someone has ‘got their back,’” the statement read, “and that citizens of this city, this state and this country can proudly stand up and say ‘I SUPPORT THE POLICE.’”
The slogan was blazed across the signs and T-shirts of the police officers at the scene, with others reading “We are Josh, We are NHPD” and “Cops Lives Matter.”
However, Newhallville resident Nazim Muhammad spoke up after he said he was offended by some of the comments he heard officers shouting in the crowd. He told the News that he had heard one of the police officers call anti-police protesters at the scene “ghetto trash.”
“If you’re going to protest the situation, do that,” he said. “But that was uncalled for.”
Once the press conference concluded, the event quickly moved outside, where pro-police protesters confronted an opposing group of activists, some of whom held a 15-foot-long sign showing the names of people who have died at the hands of police in recent years. These protesters shouted slogans through megaphones — “Cops and Klan go hand in hand”; “Stand up, fight back.”
For roughly 45 minutes, the two groups of protesters stood in groups on the sidewalk outside of City Hall chanting at the other. After 15 minutes of the chanting, one retired officer, Marco Francia, said there was no reason shouting at each other much longer. His comment provoked intense discussions between protesters and police amidst cries of “justice.” In arguments with anti-police protesters, Francia defended Smereczynsky’s actions, saying that the officer made the right decision in the context of the situation and that Esserman’s decision to place him on desk duty was unjust.
In response to accusation from community activist Barbara Fair that the police department has a lack of black police officers on patrol, Francia said his work at NHPD, which spanned a quarter of a century, demonstrated that the department does have an incredibly diverse group of employees from every background, every race and every faith.
“I think sometimes in society, people put too much on color, [and] put too much credence on that,” he said. He encouraged protesters to relinquish their megaphones and instead to sit down and start a “dialogue” with police officers, adding that the two sides can learn from each other.
Chris Garaffa, a New Haven activist who took a leading role in the organization of Friday’s protest, said Smereczynsky should have been removed from duty and charged with assault on a minor. He added that he expects his movement to grow as time passes. The protesters will hold a “March Against Police Brutality” on Grand Avenue April 14. Mike Merli, one of the community activists present on Friday, told the News the walk will remember Malik Jones, who was killed by an East Haven police officer after a car chase into New Haven 18 years ago.
Another protest regarding this specific issue will occur today at 5 p.m. This time, the protest will be at NHPD headquarters on Union Avenue.
Despite moments of dialogue, tensions grew increasingly heated until one anti-police protester, shouting through a megaphone, walked closer to the pro-police group. One member of the pro-police group then swatted away the megaphone with his sign, and a small scuffle ensued. Pushing and shoving continued until a group of on-duty officers, including NHPD Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova, separated the two groups. Twenty minutes later, the pro-police group headed north on Church Street, bringing an end to the confrontation.
While community activists remained for a short while longer, the street outside City Hall had returned to normal shortly after 5 p.m.
This article has been updated to reflect the version published in print on March 30, 2015.