David Zheng

Connecticut filed criminal charges against Hamden police officer Devin Eaton on Monday for his primary role in the April 16 officers-involved shooting of two unarmed New Haven residents that roiled the city and nearby communities in protest for weeks.

Following the conclusion of a months-long investigation, New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin published his final report on Monday. The report included a charging recommendation for the two involved officers: Eaton, with the Hamden Police Department, and Terrance Pollock, with the Yale Police Department. Both have been on administrative leave while investigations into the shooting were ongoing.

In the report, Griffin lined up three charges for Eaton, who fired 13 of the 16 total shots: one count of assault in the first degree — a class B felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison — and two counts of reckless endangerment in the first degree — a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail for each count. Eaton’s arrest makes him the first Connecticut police officer in 14 years to be charged in relation to an on-duty shooting. In the same report, Griffin cleared Pollock of criminal charges. Pollock fired three shots after his own patrol car had been hit by a stray bullet from Eaton. None of Pollock’s shots hit the two New Haven residents involved, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon. In a statement released to the Yale community Monday morning, Yale reiterated that Pollock remains under the University’s own internal investigation. In response to the report’s release and Pollock’s arrest, activists — who had pressed for the immediate firing of both involved officers — called for further action.

“I respect the decision of the State’s Attorney to prosecute officer Eaton on these three very serious charges related to the shooting,” Hamden Mayor Curt Leng told the News in a statement on Monday evening. “I want to use this opportunity to bring attention to the ongoing efforts of HPD to address pressing issues identified as a result of this incident and embrace positive changes.”

In April, Washington and Witherspoon were traveling in a Honda Civic on Argyle Street near Dixwell Avenue — on the New Haven side of the Hamden-New Haven border — when Eaton stopped the car following a 911 call reporting an armed robbery at a Hamden Gas n’ Go station. Video footage released later shows Witherspoon starting to exit the vehicle and raise his hands when Eaton began firing towards him. Pollock, with the Yale Police Department, exited his patrol car and fired at the Honda Civic after his own car was struck with a bullet. No New Haven police officers were involved. Witherspoon was uninjured while Washington sustained a gunshot wound to her upper thigh that fractured her pelvis and spine.

The shooting sparked protests that drew hundreds, shutting down major thoroughfare streets in both Hamden and New Haven. It raised questions of police accountability as well as the jurisdiction between police departments, as the shooting did not involve New Haven Police Department officers and occurred far from the center of Yale’s campus.

Investigations, which were begun by the state and Yale in the days after the shooting, spanned months over the summer as investigators sifted through video footage and encountered challenges such as body cameras that were not turned on during the shooting.

The requests of activists and community members — including the immediate release of relevant footage and the firing of officers — were not met, and both Pollock and Eaton were placed on paid administrative leave by their respective departments. In the aftermath of Eaton’s arrest and the state’s clearing of Pollock, calls for termination resurged as activists took up phone campaigns asking for Eaton’s firing. People Against Police Brutality organizer Kerry Ellington, a prominent voice in the April protests, called again for both firings. Ellington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hamden council member Justin Farmer expressed his surprise at the lack of information relating to Eaton’s potential termination.

“As a council and a community, there is a lot of action we could still take that we haven’t,” Farmer told the News. “There needs to be structural changes to policing processes to make sure this situation never happens again, and I feel my colleagues haven’t taken that as seriously.”

Farmer cited an earlier suggestion he made to hold meetings once a month where community members could sit down with a police officer and share their fears and concerns about police practices. However, he said it was shot down by the administration and the police department. Leng declined to comment specifically, citing sensitive timing.

Instead, Leng pointed to an internal investigation of the shooting directed by the Hamden Police Ethics and Integrity Unit and assisted by a third-party expert in officer-involved shootings. After the conclusion of this report, Leng told the News that Hamden Police Chief John Cappiello will make a recommendation to the Police Commission on any potential disciplinary action or termination for Eaton.

According to an email statement from University Vice President for Human Resources Janet Lindner on behalf of the University, Pollock remains on leave while Yale conducts an internal investigation of the incident. Former Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court Chase Rogers is leading the investigation. However, Griffin’s report stated that Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice would take no further action against Pollock, citing his role in the shooting as significantly more “reasonable” due to the different circumstances he witnessed when he began shooting.

“Based upon the preceding facts and circumstances … State’s Attorney Griffin concludes that the actions of Officer Pollock in discharging his weapon were objectively reasonable and, therefore, justified,” the official incident report read. “These facts would not support a criminal charge.”

The report also stated that there was no evidence that Pollock’s shots hit Washington, and as such, he could not be held responsible for her injuries. One of Eaton’s 13 fired shots also grazed Pollock’s right calf, resulting in injury.

In the wake of the shooting in April, a coalition of Yale students formed a group, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, composed of various students affiliated with the Afro-American Cultural Center. The group penned a letter to President Peter Salovey, Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins and other University administrators earlier this year demanding the termination of Pollock, the disarmament of the YPD and the restriction of the YPD’s patrol area.

“Yale must take responsibility for the authoritarian role it plays in New Haven. Yale must acknowledge its complicity in the violence its private police force commits against New Haveners. Yale must respect the voices of citizens and students alike who have spoken against police occupation for many years,” the letter read.

Griffin explicitly addressed the scope of the legal authority of Yale police officers in his Monday report. As Yale police officers are appointed by the City of New Haven, he asserted that their jurisdiction matches that of municipal police officers, and that the power of YPD officers is legally “not limited to Yale University campus or Yale University properties.”

On Monday, Lindner said in a public safety statement that Yale was working in tandem with 21CP solutions to carry out a review of police practices and community policing.

Eaton was released on a $100,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in New Haven Superior Court on Oct. 28.

 

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu