The New Haven Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation of Officer Josh Smereczynsky’s conduct-during a St. Patrick’s Day arrest-is over, but the protests are not.
On the day that the Department cleared him of any wrongdoing in the incident-captured in a controversial cell phone video in which he appears to throw a 15-year old girl to the ground as she is handcuffed behind her back-community activists exchanged words with a group of the officer’s supporters outside City Hall.
Members of the New Haven Police Department had organized a protest in response to Mayor Toni Harp’s controversial order to move Smerecznysky to desk duty until the conclusion of the investigation. Demonstrations held earlier this week-one at the police station and the second at City Hall-preceded the decision, and community activists turned out again in numbers to counter the Department’s Friday afternoon protest.
Here’s how that interaction played out:
Activists held a banner with other names of those they say have been abused by law enforcement-they consider the St. Patrick’s day incident another example of systemic police brutality. Accusations of racist policing flew from their end, while Department demonstrators shouted slogans of support toward their exonerated colleague and-as standard protest derailment protocol seems to dictate-accused the activists of being chronically unemployed. But in between the crossfire, Immanuel Baptist Church Reverend Samuel Ross Lee and retired New Haven Police Officer Marco Francia were engaged in a heated-but civil-discussion.
“A lot of the protest coming from the community seems to be surrounding what is seen in the video,” Lee says. You’re talking about a case where you have video evidence-how can you justify that?”
“I respect your concern for this girl,” Francia says later in the conversation. “Does it look bad? Of course it looks bad.”
But what that moment looks like is not the whole story, he says. Francia points out that the girl is alleged to have been carrying a knife-what her mother told the New Haven Independent was for protection against another teen allegedly threatening her. Officers are trained to not just assume that a suspect cannot fight back when they are handcuffed, he says.
“Someone with handcuffs still has knees,” Francia says. “They can also run.”
But could there have been an alternative way to restrain her?
“In most likelihood there may have been a different way to restrain her,” Francia says. “That’s not to say that I’m questioning Josh’s decision-making. In a fraction of a second, officers have to make quick decisions.”
It was Mayor Harp’s decision-to have Smereczynsky reassigned to desk duty a few days before the conclusion of the Internal Affairs investigation-that angered officers who protested on Friday.
“The investigation isn’t the issue,” Francia says. “It’s unprecedented, in this type of incident, to remove an officer from the street.”
A rookie cop whose vehicle was utilized by a drug dealer was put on desk throughout her own Internal Affairs investigation.
At a protest held at the police station on Monday, activists voiced concerns regarding what they felt was a potential for such an incident to happen again if Smereczynsky was allowed to remain on patrol. Lee echoed that sentiment.
“A number of people feel threatened by this guy,” Lee says. “In my mind, Internal Affairs is a dialogue. It’s taking him out of the situation to have a dialogue. Josh is not being hurt by them sitting him down. He’s not losing money.”
Except for overtime, which his family needs, Francia says. He feels that activists “jumped the gun” in their backlash against Smereczynsky.
As for Internal Affairs, activists have said they have little faith in that process and are pushing for the establishment of an independent civilian review board that has investigative and subpoena powers. The current version-a product of former Mayor John DeStefano’s 2001 Executive Order-can only review cases once they are closed and make recommendations to the Department.
In the meantime, New Haven will see more protests against police brutality, activists say.