After a monthslong internal investigation, the New Haven Police Department cleared its officers of any misconduct stemming from a December 2016 arrest of a local reporter, inciting criticism from both Elm City and national press groups.
David Sepulveda, a 64-year-old reporter for the New Haven Independent, was taking photographs of two pressure cookers at a police investigation on Dec. 6 when officers began yelling at him to back up. According to an internal report released March 20, Sepulveda began to walk towards officers, asking them to calm down, before officers arrested him. They cited his “arrogance” as reason for charging him with interfering with an officer. They also charged him with criminal trespass in the third degree, according to the report. Sepulveda could serve up to a year in prison, though he is now released on bond with a court date set for April 10.
Paul Bass ’82, Sepulveda’s editor at the Independent, said there is evidence police had not completely cordoned off the scene. Bass alleged that Sergeant Renee Dominguez, the supervisor at the scene, took Sepulveda’s camera and started searching through it without a warrant, actions that violate current NHPD policy.
“I was shocked that they would be so angry at this guy over a seven-second disagreement, trump up arrest charges, confine him and take his camera,” he said.
David Hartman, the media liaison for the New Haven Police Chief’s office, declined to comment on the arrest.
Bass, who has been editor of the Independent since 2005, said Dominguez’s actions reflect a general lack of enforcement and awareness of policy rules within the department. He added that the illegal search and seizure of people’s cameras in New Haven has been a problem going on for almost 10 years. Though officers signed a decree in 2014 to retrain officers and rewrite policies pertaining to seizure of video, the department continues to disregard policy changes, Bass said.
“They lose lawsuits … but don’t seem to be able to get it right,” Bass said. The arrest and subsequent investigation also raise questions about the success of community policing, which current Mayor Toni Harp helped launch as a city alderman in the 1990s.
Dan Erwin, the criminal defense attorney representing Sepulveda, said community policing allegedly promotes de-escalation, with arrest and charges as a last resort. But that often does not happen, he said.
“Rather than de-escalate those intense situations, they come out barking orders at people [and] the minute they pause or try to catch their breath [they are charged with an] offense that gets prison time,” Erwin said.
Several other groups have also voiced their disappointment with the NHPD’s decision to clear the officers. The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists issued statements, reported by the Independent, saying that the NHPD did not uphold civil liberties in the arrest and camera search.
Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, which trains police on interacting properly with the press, told the News the NPPA was “deeply disappointed and troubled” by the NHPD’s decision.
“This incident along with a number of others point to a lack of respect for, and understanding of, the very constitutional rights police swear an oath to uphold,” he said.
Local activist and leader from People Against Injustice Jane Mills said the New Haven police, in her decadeslong reporting experience, have had little internal accountability, with Sepulveda’s arrest being only a recent incident. Over the past year, Mills has been involved in community protests to urge the NHPD to be more diverse and externally accountable.
“The fact that David Sepulveda is still facing charges is evidence of the cynicism and the destructive, endless dithering we’ve been engaging in for years,” she said.
An aldermanic hearing that will discuss a proposed Civilian Review Board for the NHPD will be next Wednesday, April 5, at 6 p.m. in City Hall.