Thomas Birmingham, Contributing Photographer

On the evening of May 30, amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes gave a press conference to condemn police violence and brutality. Behind him stood a line of police officers holding a sign that read, “Police Against Police Brutality.”

The very next day, New Haven police pepper-sprayed a group of unarmed peaceful protestors on the steps of police headquarters. 

This Monday, at a press briefing with New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, Reyes announced the conclusion of a months-long internal investigation into police conduct on that day.  Reyes said hundreds of hours of body cam footage from 58 cameras, as well as footage retrieved from protestors and the media, was reviewed during the investigation. The internal report found that police use of force was justified and the department made no move to discipline any police. Organizers — who contested the investigation’s findings and recounted scenes of peaceful assembly being met with aggression— reacted to the investigation with disappointment, disgust and anger.

“It is our primary responsibility to protect everyone’s rights, including people who may protest against us,” Reyes said at the briefing. “Every officer involved in that protest was professional and their behavior was consistent with the expectations of the New Haven police department.”

The May 31 protest occurred in response to an NHPD officer using mace on a Black man at the Walmart on Foxon Boulevard, as well as the deaths of Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. It brought together several hundred protestors, many of whom confronted a line of officers outside police headquarters in the midafternoon. According to Reyes, the crowd attempted to force their way into the building. Reyes said several protesters attempted to break through police lines and threw projectiles like water bottles at officers, triggering officer use of pepper spray. Despite this, the NHPD has maintained that no one at the protest sustained serious injuries.

“The Police Department’s internal affairs division takes any reports of police misconduct or police brutality very seriously,” Elicker told the News by phoine. “Both the Chief of Police and I do too… The use of pepper spray during this specific protest was legally justifiable but we have also changed, in general, our approach to how to engage with the protests.”

Elicker added that there have been “examples” where the city has “disciplined officers.” He specifically pointed to the June firing of Officer Jason Santiago after he used excessive force during an arrest.

At the press conference, the department also announced its plans to arrest an unspecified suspect that the police believe struck and injured one officer in the face with an unidentified projectile.

“Having my officers out there for that long of a time really subjected them to a lot of abuse,” Reyes said. “It was exhausting.”

Kerry Ellington, the organizer of the protest, said she too is exhausted. On a Monday night Zoom call with members of the press, Ellington and ten other protestors from the May 31 incident shared their experiences. Several said they had been pepper-sprayed. Others stopped as they retold their accounts to hold back tears. At the meeting, Ellington described the results of the police investigation as “unsurprising.” In the hours after the police used pepper spray, she said, city leaders had already begun to justify the use of force.

In a statement Elicker released shortly after the protest, he described police as having “shown great restraint.”

“All they’ve done is craft and construct a narrative,” Ellington said. “That’s how police violence functions. As soon as a matter of violence happens in our community by police, it’s justified with no actual reporting or thorough investigation before it’s justified. Those things follow after.”

Elicker defended his actions in a call with the News.

“Some of the same protesters came to my house the Friday night beforehand and I came out to talk with the protesters on that night and the protesters were not interested in talking with me that night, so I believed that it was not going to be successful at that protest as well,” Elicker said. “I’ve been very clear in mindset that I should engage with the protesters early and have done so at every subsequent protest since that day”

On the day of the protest, attendee Lindsay Buchanon remembers that she had just moved to the front of the line when she was struck in the face with pepper spray.

“It was cold, it was jarring, and it felt like a very heavy moment,” Buchanan said. “It felt like an immediate breach of trust.”

Another attendee, New Havener Gretchen Raffa, said she’s still in shock at how a “beautiful demonstration of what community looks like” turned into a woman being shoved into her and them both falling down the stairs after being pepper-sprayed. Camila Güiza-Chavez said that even after she took part in chants of “we are peaceful,” she felt the police treated protestors as though they were “animals who needed to be herded.”

Hamden City Councilman Justin Farmer was also pepper-sprayed at the protest. At the Zoom event, he said he did not see any escalation that would have warranted that level of police response.

“Frankly, I’m disgusted to see what was put out today [at the press conference],” Farmer said. “Especially when we’re having conversations about what potentially defunding the police would look like, to try and control the narrative without restorative justice is actually really disrespectful.”

At the press conference, Reyes gave several reasons for the heightened police response at this protest, most of which were challenged by protestors later that night. He reported that police had reason to believe that many protestors outside NHPD headquarters were part of a group that the NHPD believes had forcibly entered and vandalized Bridgeport Police headquarters the night before. A statement from Bridgeport Director of Emergency Management Scott Appleby after protests at the BPD headquarters made no mention of vandalism and reported no arrests in association with that incident. Reyes provided no evidence connecting any protesters at the NHPD headquarters to the events in Bridgeport.

Caroline Smith, who was present at the New Haven protest and was also pepper-sprayed, emphasized that the accusation that the group was connected to the events in Bridgeport was unsubstantiated.   

“People have been using false claims against activists for years to discredit activists and discredit the movement,” Smith said. “I don’t want to see leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement be hurt as a result of allegations like that, and I don’t want the movement as a whole to be negatively impacted by really careless allegations.”

Reyes also said that an organizer at the protest was instructing protestors to try to forcibly enter police headquarters — orders he said could be heard in body cam footage from the event. Reyes played two videos at the press conference, both of which included mostly inaudible scenes of police-protester confrontation. Neither included any evidence of the purported instigations made by organizers. 

Ellington acknowledged that protestors were attempting to move forward, but disputed the claim that anyone ever called for protesters to force their way into the building.

“Nobody wanted to go into the building, let’s be clear,” Ellington said. “We moved forward to go up to the building to call Elicker out. People took one single step forward and got met with pepper spray.”

Body cam footage shown at the press conference confirmed that water bottles were thrown at police and that pepper spray was used on protestors standing face-to-face with a line of police. Moments before officers dispensed pepper spray for the first time, a woman at the front of the crowd can be heard repeatedly shouting, “I’m not even pushing.”

According to Ellington, protesters gathered in front of police headquarters in an effort to speak with Elicker about police violence and brutality. Earlier that day, Elicker had tweeted that he was “monitoring the situation” of protests from inside the building. Ellington said part of the frustration with the events of the protest, as well as what was said at the press conference, is the discrepancy between the mayor publicly announcing he was at a public building and the fact that he remained inside even as protesters called for him to come outside.

Smith said she was discouraged by Elicker’s conduct throughout the day of the incident. She had expected the mayor to speak with protestors when they arrived after seeing his tweet.

“I didn’t feel safe when we came to the police department and we weren’t met with our mayor but a line of police officers who were armed,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel safe when our mayor that people voted for and that people rely on and need didn’t come out to be with his people.”

Elicker said at the press conference that at the time of the protest, his main focus was preventing New Haven from becoming like so many of the other cities across the country where peaceful protests escalated to riots. He added that he has learned a lot about this issue over the course of the last six months.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Elicker said. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is how important it is for me to be present everywhere I possibly can. A different approach by myself in engaging the protest very early on could have helped decrease some of the volatility.”

Reyes said he regretted having such a large police presence at the protest. He said that while he believes his officers acted appropriately, a more appropriate measure would have been to lock the building and reduce police presence. Reyes said that the NHPD has chosen the latter option in subsequent protests and has attempted to “organize more effectively” with protest leaders.

But organizers present at the Zoom call Monday night said the issue was not the organization of police at protests, but instead their presence at the protests themselves. 

Reflecting on the May 31 protest and the press conference, Ellington characterized the behavior of New Haven police and leaders as “incredibly insensitive” throughout the whole investigation process. She said in a moment of national outcry for police reform, she and other protestors would continue to expect and demand better from their city.

“If this department had any sensibility in that moment, they would have shown empathy to the Black and brown people and white allies who were out there in grief,” Ellington said. “It’s completely absurd that we are living in a city that says it is complicit with that type of violence.”
Police footage from the events on May 31 can be found here.

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu

Correction, Oct. 28 | An earlier version of this story did not include a comments from Elicker about his actions on May 31 or the report. The story has been updated to include those comments. Elicker attempted to reach the News before publication.