A march that started on Thorn Street in The Hill landed on the New Haven Police Department’s doorstep yesterday evening.
After a press conference in front of the Police Department’s 1 Union Avenue headquarters, the 50 or so activists filed into the building’s lobby, demanding to speak with Chief Dean Esserman about a St. Patrick’s Day arrest involving what appeared to be an officer slamming a 15-year old girl to the pavement outside of Buffalo Wild Wings on Church Street. A cell phone video-posted on social media-captured the incident.
The Department launched an Internal Affairs investigation after the footage surfaced, according to reporting from The New Haven Independent. The officer in question-identified in an Independent article-is Joshua Smereczynsky. The girl, meanwhile, was accused of carrying a knife-for protection from another teen who was harassing her, her mother told The Independent.
“When I saw that video, you know what sparked my attention? I have a daughter-that was the first thing I thought of,” said Holly Tucker, a New Haven resident who is waiting for the findings of her own Internal Affairs complaint, which she filed in August. “Brought me down to tears, because I couldn’t imagine.”
Her mother, Barbara Fair, organized the march and demonstration, and she says that it will not be the last.
“We have power, so stand in that power, and fight back against these people who think they can come into our communities and treat our kids in any kind of way,” Fair said through a megaphone to the crowd of supporters gathered on the steps outside the police station.
It’s not the first, either. New Haven joined nationwide protests that were held in the aftermath of grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. The city is in the process of reshaping the structure of its civilian review board-considered by activists, in its current form, to be “toothless” in its ability to hold police officers accountable-and the addition of subpoena power and independent investigative functions was the subject of a public hearing held months ago.
“[It has] got to have subpoena power,” said Scot X. Esdaile, President of the Connecticut NAACP, which pushed aggressively for a review board prior to former Mayor John DeStefano’s 2001 Executive Order establishing the current one. “If it doesn’t, it’s all symbolic and no substance.”
At the public hearing, New Haven Corporation of Counsel John Rose argued that subpoena power itself is symbolic and no substance in the absence of a court order to compel testimony. But that doesn’t mean that other review boards don’t have it.
The New York City Civilian Review Board, for example, can issue subpoenas, but they don’t use that power on members of the NYPD. That’s because the Department’s own patrol guide mandates that officers cooperate with review board investigations and appear at meetings when asked to, says Linda Sachs, the review board’s spokesperson.
So New York City’s body reserves that function to obtain documents from fire, EMT, and medical personnel, as well as private institutions that might provide evidence such as video surveillance footage, according to Sachs. That can come in handy in New Haven if the Board ends up with the investigative powers activists want.
A civilian review board executive order in Newark also calls for the right to issue subpoenas. What New Haven’s own version will look like is yet to be seen, but for now, activists just want to have a word with Chief Esserman.
“We will be here until we see the Chief,” Fair said in the crowded police station lobby.
In that case, they would have been waiting for awhile-the group soon got word that Esserman is in France. So they asked to speak with someone else, to no avail.
“If we went out there and blocked traffic, I’m sure they would send someone out,” said Reverend Cornell Lewis, an activist from Hartford.
It didn’t even take 10 minutes. Lieutenant Herbert Sharp, who escorted the group from the middle of rush hour traffic on Union Avenue, spoke to a throng of activists and reporters on the sidewalk outside police headquarters.
“The charges that were brought against him are being investigated by Internal Affairs,” Sharp told them. “Like with anything, there’s a due process, so you have to allow that process to come to fruition. And I’m sure the chief will make those results available to all of you.”
“What if you don’t have any faith in the Internal Affairs process?” Fair asks.
Her daughter’s own Internal Affairs complaint-alleging that Officer John Bandi tried to pull her car door open in a parking garage over the summer-was filed in August, and Fair, who says that she and Tucker have yet to receive word regarding Division’s findings, has expressed frustration.
Among the proposed provisions included in a civilian review board blueprint put forth by local activist Emma Jones-whose son, Malik, was killed by an East Haven Police Department officer in Fair Haven-was a mandated time frame within which investigations have to be completed.
“Thank God she had her door locked, otherwise we’d be out here saying free Barbara Fair from prison, but he’s still on the force,” Fair said. “What faith do we have in a Dept. that does something like that?”
Sharp said that he could not comment on that incident or the related investigation, but urged Fair to “wait for that process to play out” as well.
Activists will be at City Hall at 4 p.m. today to meet with Mayor Toni Harp. They are demanding that the charges against the girl-carrying a dangerous weapon, third-degree assault, breach of peace, and interfering with an officer, according to The New Haven Independent-be dropped and that the Department issue sanctions against Smereczynsky.