More than 100 New Haven residents showed up at the Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation — a provider of youth and adult services — in New Haven to ask city and police leaders questions. When officials were unable to provide answers that satisfied community members, the crowd became visibly frustrated and, led by community organizers, made explicit demands for accountability and transparency from the Hamden police force. The shooting has brought national issues related to police brutality to a local head in a majority-minority city where residents have long contested issues of fair policing and accountability.
“This is an urgent call to statewide action,” said Kerry Ellington, a longtime community activist and prominent leader in the recent establishment of a Civilian Review Board to ensure police accountability in New Haven. “[This is a] call for accountability of police violence in black and brown communities.”
Although no members of the New Haven Police Department were involved in the shooting, Washington was fired upon by officers from the Hamden and Yale Police Departments following a car stop within New Haven city bounds. Community members gathered to support, air their grievances and list their demands. Some attendees brought their young children, while others carried signs that read “systemic corruption” and “black lives matter.”
Community members, looking for answers and explanations, first heard from New Haven and Hamden leaders. The mayors of both cities, as well as both towns’ police chiefs were in attendance and delivered remarks to the crowd. Community members’ frustrations quickly emerged as the leaders
made verbal promises, but were unable to make statements on what happened and actions underway.
The state attorney’s office has already opened an investigation into the shooting.
Hamden Mayor Curt Leng told attendees that he understood why the community would not trust the police department and other authorities but asked the community to trust the investigation process. Acting Hamden Police Chief John Cappiello said that the city “lost control of the investigation,” once the state began its probe. Although Leng said he could not provide further details on the investigation, he promised to update residents on new developments.
Attendees stressed lack of transparency from the officers, and demanded that the police officers take responsibility for the shooting. They questioned why officers could not release body camera footage of the incident, especially as videos of the incident had already emerged on social media.
Twenty-two years and two days ago, on April 14, 1997, an eerily similar shooting rattled the Elm City. Malik Jones, a 21-year-old black man, was shot and killed by East Haven police in New Haven after a high-speed chase. Jones’ death has loomed large over the city — activists on Tuesday pointed out similarities between the the two incidents separated by more than two decades and said that they were “still waiting for justice.”
As the speakers talked, the crowd remained active, often chanting and questioning speakers’ statements. Ellington ultimately presented a series of immediate requests. First, she and other attendees demanded that the involved Hamden police officer be identified and put on unpaid leave. Although the Hamden Police Department Chief and the Hamden Mayor confirmed that the office was already on administrative leave, they provided no answer as to whether that leave was paid or unpaid.
Activists also demanded the release of the officer’s body camera footage. Although the Hamden police chief insisted that the footage belonged to the state attorney while the investigation was still ongoing, activists and community organizers claimed that there was no statute prohibiting the release of such a video during the investigation.
At least 60 community members crowded into the lobby of the Hamden Police Department headquarters at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday to protest the shooting. Protestors shouted sentiments including, “Why did you try to kill my friend?” and, “No weapons!” at officers. Hamden Deputy Police Chief Bo Kicak responded to community members in the lobby.
“Obviously one of our officers was involved in an unfortunate incident. I cannot go into the details as to what transpired. An individual was unfortunately shot,” Kicak said.
After a few minutes, the dozens of protestors walked onto the street with their hands raised, chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” The protest brought oncoming cars to a standstill, and Hamden Police began to redirect traffic as a result.
On the street, with at least 10 Hamden officers observing the crowd from the steps of the police headquarters, the protestors chanted, “Release it now,” referring to the body camera videos from the officer.
Keisha Greene, the mother of Paul Witherspoon, who was driving with Washington but did not sustain any injuries, emphasized the importance of fair policing in a community like New Haven.
“Our kids are not innocent,” Greene said. “They smoke weed and drink alcohol. But guess what? So does everyone else.”
Hamden’s first police chief was appointed in 1929.
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