Facing concerns about officer accountability, New Haven Police Department revokes police certification for the first time
Experts and activists have been raising concerns about the nature of policing in the city following multiple complaints.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
A former New Haven police officer became the first officer permanently barred from law enforcement in Connecticut for “general misconduct” outlined under the provisions of a 2020 police accountability law.
The officer, Gary Gamarra, resigned from NHPD in December 2020 after being accused of coercing two women into sexual encounters. Two Internal Affair, or IA, investigations were launched in November 2019 and July 2020. On November 16, Gamarra had his certification revoked by the Police Officer Standards and Training Council under the 2020 police accountability law. However, the State Attorney declined the arrest warrant for “lack of probable cause.” Though Gamarra is the first officer to be decertified, his case is one of several incidents of police misconduct in New Haven. The recent spate of misconduct cases has prompted experts and activists to emphasize concerns about the department.
“We’re proud to say that [Gamarra] is the first police officer to be decertified in the state of Connecticut under [the 2020 police accountability act],” Captain David Zannelli said. “He can no longer be a police officer. Based on the testimony of the victims, we tried to apply for arrest warrants, those were declined because of lack of probable cause.”
IA Investigation, Administrative Decertification and “Lack of Probable Cause”
Internal affairs documents reviewed by the News show that two investigations were conducted in response to a complaint from two female sex workers that Gamarra solicited sexual acts from them. The two women told NHPD that they felt that they were coerced into sexual activity with Gamarra because of his position of authority, and that they felt humiliated and abused by his treatment.
Sex Workers and Allies Network, or SWAN, which is part of the statewide organization CT Harm Reduction Alliance, assisted NHPD during the investigation. Zannelli said Beatrice Codianni, the founder and executive director of SWAN, encouraged the survivors to come forward to NHPD and reassured them of SWAN’s support.
According to Zannelli and the IA report, Gamarra initially denied having sexual contact with the two women. Later, he admitted to lying multiple times during his interview with IA, and ultimately admitted to receiving oral sex from one victim and engaging in oral and vaginal intercourse from the other victim. Gamarra denied “rape” and stated that the sexual acts were consensual. IA found that both complaints made against Gamarra were sustained, and Gamarra’s act was in violation of Rules of Conduct, Incident Reports, Body Worn Camera and Patrol Operations.
“We couldn’t let officer Gamarra continue this,” Zannelli said. “We had to make a decision … We ended up going the administrative route. We looked at POST, the certifying agency for the state for police officers.”
Bill No. 6004, An Act Concerning Police Accountability, allowed POST to revoke Gamarra’s certification for “[having] engaged in conduct that undermines public confidence in law enforcement” under Section (I). Passed in June 2020, the Act expands the reasons for which POST may cancel or revoke a police officer’s certification to include conduct undermining public confidence in law enforcement or excessive force, according to Connecticut General Assembly. POST voted unanimously at its meeting on Nov. 16 to revoke Gamarra’s police officer certification.
“We are relieved that Gamarra has been decertified,” said Karolina Ksiazek, director of operations of SWAN. “And we’re really grateful … and lucky that the New Haven Police Department has stepped up to support sex workers, in a way that I would say most police departments across the country have not.”
According to Zannelli, both investigations spanned more than a year because of the “cooperation and credibility” of the victims. The first victim failed to identify Gamarra on a photo array, an identification procedure used in Connecticut. Internal Affairs reports mentioned that one victim “implied” she had consensual sexual intercourse with Gamarra in the investigation.
Zannelli explained that although during the IA investigation Gamarra admitted to having sexual intercourse with the two women, his statement was under the protection of Garrity Rights, which shield public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during investigatory interviews conducted by their employers. Gamarra’s confession cannot be used to press criminal charges against him.
“The investigation was complex,” Zannelli said. “A lot of the victims that were involved suffer from traumatic incidents in their lives … some of them did not want to give up information … changed the story around … that hurts the credibility when you’re not consistent.”
Another challenge during the IA investigation, according to Zannelli, is that there was not physical evidence of force or threat of force, or the explicit communication from the victims to Gamarra that stated they did not want to engage in sexual intercourse with him.
Norm Pattis, Gamarra’s lawyer whose former clients include Alex Jones, objected to the use of the term “rape” in Gamarra’s case. He said to the New Haven Independent that “there was not and never will be a criminal prosecution over what was at most a libidinal error in judgment.”
New Haven Judicial District state’s attorney and Pattis could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.
Zannelli said that IA also worked with the FBI regarding the criminal charge investigation. When contacted by the News, the FBI declined to provide further information on the case.
“[Gamarra] betrayed the public trust by knowingly soliciting a sex worker off-duty after having direct contact with her in his official duties as a police officer, and knowing and admittedly lying to Internal Affairs Investigators,” Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins, the member of POST and chair of the certification committee, wrote in a memo. “Investigators further found that Officer Gamarra’s actions constituted a use of his position as a police officer to have power over citizens of New Haven and obtain inappropriate benefits from his status as a police officer that he was not otherwise entitled to receive.”
Controversy of Police Accountability Act and NHPD
Since the passing of the police accountability act, experts and local activists have continued to push for a more fundamental change to the department, particularly in light of recent instances of misconduct.
“We are angry that Gamarra’s case wasn’t even brought to court.” Ksiazek said. “Having two women come forward is more than enough evidence to even start a case. [But] it hasn’t even gone to trial.”
Alexander Taubes LAW ’15, a civil rights lawyer in New Haven, said he is not surprised that the state attorney failed to bring criminal charges against Gamarra because “they never take crimes committed by police officers seriously.”
According to Taubes, police officers tend to suffer less serious charges, or no charge at all for their misconduct, whereas other citizens have been sentenced to prison when less evidence is available. Taubes also maintained that the protection of Garrity Rights in the Gamarra case is a deliberate attempt to cover up the ongoing chronic abuse and to minimize consequences for the officer.
“It’s a culture of the Blue Wall of Silence in the lack of accountability.” Taubes said.
John DeCarlo, professor and director of the masters program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven, disagreed with Taubes’ comment.
“I think that if they could prove criminal intent, they would certainly have brought the charge forward.” DeCarlo said. “In my experience in working in the State’s Attorney’s Office, they have always been very forthright and comprehensive.”
Looking at police accountability on a broader level, DeCarlo said that the same level of probable cause that a crime occurred must be proved for a citizen or a police officer. However, officers are granted qualified immunity and have more leeway in terms of misconduct. For instance, a police officer may be granted qualified immunity from a civilian complaint of use of force because the officer is authorized to use force. DeCarlo emphasized qualified immunity is not relevant to Gamarra’s case in particular, but “when dealing with police officers, we can’t forget that in many instances, not this instance, we would be dealing with something called qualified immunity. ”
Barbara Fair, a New Haven local activist, said earlier that the police officers are asked to be guardians, not warriors. “We can’t allow them to continue to kill with impunity,” Barbara told the News in March, when the Act’s new implementations on use of force was delayed. Fair could not be reached for comment on Tuesday night.
Ksiazek, Taubes and DeCarlo believe that Gamarra’s decertification is a promising outcome. Still, while the police accountability law is well-intended, true change requires further and more fundamental reforms, they said.
“It is not about accountability, it is about election.” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo told the News that the professional training a police officer receives before they begin their career will greatly influence their performance. If the department does better in training, education and vetting the officers, many illegal actions likely would not occur.
In general, DeCarlo said that the police department could improve its recruitment by providing a more evaluative psychological test than Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. DeCarlo also suggested changing the model of police training — train police as crime preventers rather than reactive investigators and demilitarize the department so police officers are not taught to treat their community as an enemy, he said.
However, DeCarlo said that one of the challenges to enhancing police training is a lack of funding.
“New Haven very often serves as an example of a good police department, but even the best police department still has people that do wrong things.” DeCarlo said. “But it is not only up to the police officers. It is up to the state of Connecticut [who] determines the curriculum, and not the individual Police Department.”
Ksiazek told the News that Gamarra’s lawyer’s statement are commonly made about sex workers. She said that Gamarra is not only “one bad apple,” but symptomatic of both a larger need for police accountability and stigma against sex work that challenges people’s safety. SWAN will keep pushing for police accountability, and more generally, full decriminalization of sex work in the state of Connecticut to decrease violence against sex workers, Ksiazek said.
Public Complaint and NHPD’s Future Plan
Concerns over police accountability come as NHPD suffers from tumultuous employee turnover and rampant criticisms from the community.
During the Board of Alders meeting on Dec. 6, alders rejected Renee Dominguez’s proposed appointment as the permanent New Haven police chief. Protesters brought signs, flags that read “NHPD Guilty — New Haven Against Police Brutality” and microphones to the City Hall meeting.
“There were 24 deaths [over the past year] that have not really been fully investigated at all, mostly happening to Black and brown people within the city of New Haven,” said Briam Timko, a New Haven community member and supporter of Unidad Latina en Acción. “And that’s unacceptable … They’re still waiting for answers.”
At the meeting, alders stressed the importance of concrete action and accountability as the city works to address its issues with policing.
Dominguez, acting interim police chief of NHPD, told the News that the NHPD will keep monitoring the increasing misconduct and make sure to educate police officers and provide them with more resources, such as emotional support. Currently the NHPD lieutenants are in a training run by the FBI, and the sergeants are expected to receive further training as well.
“It’s accountability and transparency by the New Haven Police Department that once these cases were brought to our attention, we acted swiftly.” Dominguez said. “We began internal investigations immediately, and then where appropriate, criminal criminal charges were brought forth.”
Still, DeCarlo emphasized that the police department should “get out in front of the problem,” instead of “waiting for police officers to make a mistake and then handle it.” The police officers should not be held accountable, but also be “better”, more professional and work in a more efficacious manner, he said.
The NHPD has received 68 civilian complaints in 2021 as of Dec. 1.
Correction, Dec. 10: The article has been updated with David Zannelli’s correct title.