David Zheng

Stephanie Washington was rushed to the hospital last April after Yale and Hamden police fired 16 rounds at her car during a traffic stop, their bullets fracturing her spine and tearing her skin. Now, following months of local protests calling for justice in her case and amid a nationwide movement against police brutality, she’s taking the individuals and institutions involved to court.

Washington’s lawsuit — originally filed on Aug. 4 in New Haven Superior Court and since moved to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut — seeks more than $15,000 in damages for injuries including physical harm, psychological distress and the financial loss of her car, which was riddled with bullets and taken as evidence.

The court filing names 14 parties: Hamden officer Devon Eaton, who performed the initial traffic stop; Yale officer Terrance Pollock, who also responded to the call; Yale; Hamden; and New Haven, among others. Washington’s claims address both the involved officers’ conduct and the policing agreement between New Haven, Hamden and the Yale Police Department that she says allowed that conduct to occur.

Given how difficult it is to sue police officers in the United States, Yale law professor John Witt told the News, establishing those claims “may be an uphill battle.” Washington is up against strong state protections for public employees and a national doctrine of qualified immunity that has historically shielded police officers from litigation. 

Prior to Washington’s recent civil suit, local activists demanded for months that Eaton and Pollock’s employers and the State of Connecticut hold both officers accountable. State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin announced in October that Connecticut had filed felony and misdemeanor charges against Eaton, who pleaded not guilty in November and awaits trial on unpaid leave. Griffin declined to recommend charges for Pollock, who was later reassigned to a position that does not require a gun or a uniform

Washington’s legal team did not respond to the News’ request for comment, nor did representatives of Yale or Hamden. The City of New Haven declined to comment for this story, citing the lawsuit’s ongoing status. 

Other defendants — including Aziz Abdullattf, who made the initial 911 call implicating Paul Witherspoon, who was driving the car, in an armed robbery — could not be reached for comment. Abdullattf later told state investigators, who found no additional evidence that Witherspoon had a weapon, that he did not actually see a gun but merely inferred its presence. Washington is suing him and his employer for false reporting. 

Eaton and Pollock: Negligence and unreasonable seizure

Washington sued the two involved officers on both state and federal grounds, filing counts of negligence under Connecticut law and of unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. 

The negligence counts, per state statute, require Washington to establish that the officers could have foreseen imminent injury to a specific individual — in this case, Washington herself — and that their actions caused that injury. According to a Connecticut Office of Labor Relations report, state courts often struggle to determine whether an employee should reasonably have foreseen injury, and public employees are generally immune from litigation so long as they act in “good faith.” 

To establish unreasonable seizure, Washington must first demonstrate that Eaton and Pollock’s conduct constituted seizure — which, per a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, occurs when a person’s “freedom of movement is restrained” by means of “physical force or a show of authority.” She will then need to show that the alleged seizure was unreasonable — not in hindsight, the Supreme Court ruled in 1989, but rather “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene” who was “forced to make split-second judgments … in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.”

A formidable federal doctrine stands in the way: qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil suits, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982, unless their actions violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The doctrine made headlines earlier this summer as ongoing police brutality protests swept the nation and activists demanded more accountability for law enforcement.

According to Washington’s lawyers, Eaton and Pollock committed such a violation. The court filing lists multiple instances of alleged negligence on the part of both officers and asserts that those actions constituted unreasonable seizure. 

Eaton acted negligently by entering New Haven’s jurisdiction without any immediate need or evidence of an escalating situation, the filing says, and failing to notify the Hamden Police Department, communicate with Yale and New Haven police or coordinate with Pollock.

He then fired his pistol at Witherspoon without warning, the filing says, and continued to fire even though Witherspoon did not present an imminent threat. Eaton told state investigators last year that he believed his life was in immediate danger.

Additionally, Washington’s lawyers say, Eaton knew or should have known that Washington was in the passenger seat as he continued to fire at the car — making him negligent, Washington alleges, as he knew or should have known that his actions would harm a specific person.

For his part, Pollock began firing his pistol at Washington’s car after a stray bullet from Eaton’s gun struck his vehicle. That decision was negligent, Washington alleges, because Pollock didn’t have a clear target and rather fired in her car’s — and herself and Witherspoon’s — general direction. 

Pollock also knew or should have known several other things, according to the filing: that the stray bullet came from Eaton rather than Witherspoon, that Washington was in the car and that by firing in Eaton’s direction, Pollock could create the false impression that Witherspoon was shooting at Eaton and therefore presented an imminent threat. 

Pollock’s negligence, the filing says, also includes his failure to make contact with Hamden’s dispatch officer, turn on his headlights, assume control of the situation or make his presence known to Eaton. On each of those occasions, Washington’s lawyers will have to demonstrate that Pollock knew or should have known his actions would harm a specific individual: Stephanie Washington.

Because Eaton and Pollock were acting in their capacities as Hamden and Yale employees, the lawsuit holds both Hamen and Yale liable under a common law doctrine known as respondeat superior. New Haven is also liable, the filing says, as Pollock was “acting in his dual capacity as a police officer for Defendant Yale and Defendant New Haven.”

New Haven, Hamden and Yale: The policing agreement 

Police shootings, Washington’s lawyers say, don’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, her legal team asserts that government policies — in this case, the policing agreement between New Haven, Hamden and the Yale Police Department — created the conditions for a violation of Washington’s Fourth Amendment rights.

This argument is known as a Monell claim, in which a municipal government can be held liable for violations of constitutional rights if those violations directly result from official policy. Washington’s Monell claims — filed against the two cities and their mayors, police departments and chiefs, as well as Yale and its police chief — will require her to establish the Fourth Amendment violations detailed above and establish that those violations resulted directly from the policing agreement.

The agreement in question, signed in 2011, allows Hamden officers to take policing action in New Haven with oversight from both chiefs. Washington’s lawyers also sued Yale and YPD under that agreement, per a state statute that treats university police as municipal officers.

The lawsuit notes several specific guidelines outlined in the agreement: Officers cannot actively engage in proactive law enforcement outside of their home jurisdictions unless cooperating with officers of another department, and they have to notify the local department whose jurisdiction they enter. 

According to the filing, Hamden, New Haven and Yale breached those guidelines by allowing a policy under which Hamden officers — like Eaton — can act unilaterally when operating in New Haven. The three institutions, Washington alleges, also failed to ensure proper coordination and supervision of Hamden officers by their New Haven and Yale counterparts when those officers operate in the Elm City.

Additionally, Washington’s lawyers say, the cities and University failed to define circumstances under which Hamden officers can enter New Haven for non-emergency activities and failed to establish proper communication channels between officers from different jurisdictions — or, if those two policies exist, failed to ensure compliance. 

Those combined actions, the filing says, amount to “deliberate indifference to Ms. Washington’s right under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983,” which allows people to sue government officials for civil rights violations.

Washington’s case has not yet been assigned a court date.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu