WNPR

Hartford Police Department Releases Videos in Excessive Force Investigation

Oct 5, 2016

The officer seen kicking a man in handcuffs, now-retired Sgt. Sean Spell, told WNPR that "there is a reason for the use of force."

Hartford police arrested Ricardo Perez and Emilio Diaz after a wild car chase that began in Hartford and ended in West Hartford back in June. But it’s what happened after the car chase that has led to a state investigation of the possible use of excessive force. 

On Wednesday, Hartford’s Deputy Chief Brian Foley released several dashcam videos of the incident to the media, and he played them for reporters.

One of the videos shows that after one of the suspects was handcuffed, a nearby officer -- now-retired Sgt. Sean Spell -- kicked the suspect's head into the ground.

“That, there, is obviously of serious concern to the police department, and obviously, now, to the state’s attorney's office,” Foley told reporters.

WNPR initially asked for the videos from Hartford and West Hartford. The request was denied because the state's attorney investigating the case objected to their release.

But on Wednesday, Litchfield State's Attorney David Shepack said he no longer objected. He also said that there have been no charges filed or arrests made. The investigation is ongoing.

Reached by phone, Spell -- who has since retired from the department -- declined extensive comment.

He did say that he is cooperating with the investigation, and suggested that there is more to the story than the video appears to show.

“There is a reason for the use of force,” Spell said.

His attorney, Andrew Crumbie, said he couldn't yet comment on the criminal investigation.

Watch a portion of the video below.  The incident in question takes place just after the 3:00 mark.

Foley acknowledged that the video was difficult to watch. He also said that while the department puts a priority on transparency and accountability, the state’s criminal investigation made delivering on those two goals more difficult. Foley also understood that the fact that Spell retired after the incident didn’t look good. It suggested, Foley said, that he retired to protect himself.

“I know that the optics of it are difficult and it seems that way,” Foley said. “That would be for him to answer. The question we get is, how do you allow someone to retire? The answer is there are no mechanisms in place for us -- no state law, no ordinance, nothing in our HR rules, nothing in our collective bargaining agreement -- that would prevent an employee from retiring when involved in this type of an investigation.”

While Hartford police are looking into Spell’s actions, Foley said they’re also looking into the entire incident: why the chase started, why it involved so many officers, why it went into another jurisdiction, why cruisers were ramming the car, whether other officers saw the alleged use of excessive force, and how they and their supervisors responded.

That and other things, Foley said, will all be investigated internally.

Below, watch the struggle between the officers and the two men they were chasing. One officer appears to use his baton at least twice. The relevant video begins around the 5:30 mark.

State Rep. Angel Arce said he and other legislators saw the video a few weeks ago at the office of the state’s attorney.

“We were all upset,” Arce said. “We were upset when he kicked him in the head. He had handcuffed. That was very disturbing and we’re very upset about that.”

Arce said he thinks Spell should be prosecuted, and is concerned that he could keep his pension.

"You put prosecutors in an untenable position when you ask them to investigate people that they work with."
David McGuire

“I truly believe that I’m going to see an arrest being made. I mean, it’s all on tape,” Arce said. “They’ve got evidence enough to do it to make an arrest and press charges on this officer.”

David McGuire, the interim executive director of American Civil Liberties Union in Connecticut, hasn’t seen the videos. But he is concerned about the very investigation itself.

As he sees it, state prosecutors shouldn’t be involved in investigating alleged abuses by law enforcement -- people with whom they are otherwise partners.

“I don’t think that they have the ability, whether they know it or not, to truly step back and disconnect from their day to day operations with police,” he said. “The reality is that prosecutors work hand-in-hand with police, and we need them to to prosecute crimes, and keep us safe. You put prosecutors in an untenable position when you ask them to investigate people that they work with.”

McGuire said the ACLU plans to push for legislation for an independent investigative agency for these types of situations.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin issued a statement Wednesday after the release, below.

On its face, the video raises very serious concerns, and I commend the Hartford Police Department for making the video public as soon as they were permitted to do so by the State’s Attorney. As a city, we are committed to transparency and openness, we have an outstanding and dedicated police force, and we expect our officers to uphold the highest standards – and to be held accountable when they fall short."

Perez and Diaz, the men who police chased, were arrested on various charges, which are still pending.

Perez was charged with a long list of crimes, including reckless driving, engaging police in pursuit, driving without a license, and drug possession.

Diaz was charged with interfering with an officer, marijuana possession, and possession with intent to sell. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Foley's statement on Wednesday is below. 

On Saturday, June 4, 2016 Officers of the Hartford and West Hartford Police Departments and Connecticut State Police engaged in a motor vehicle pursuit that began in Hartford and ended with the arrest of the driver and his passenger in West Hartford. The pursuit began when a Hartford Police Officer determined that the car in question was stolen. When officers attempted to stop the car the driver sped away and led police on a chase through several residential streets in Hartford. When the pursuit reached West Hartford, police deployed “stop sticks,” which brought the car to a halt.

In the course of arresting both occupants of the stolen vehicle, officers used force -- including the use of a TASER -- to affect the arrests. Both arrestees suffered visible facial injuries at some point. The exact circumstances of each arrest are being investigated, but a West Hartford Police cruiser camera shows a police officer kicking one of the arrestees after that person was handcuffed. Preliminary review of the incident and available evidence raised serious concerns of excessive force used by the officer(s).

As a result, the Hartford Police Department launched an immediate internal investigation on Sunday June 5, 2016. Contact was made between HPD, the West Hartford Police Department, the Connecticut State Police and the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s office.

This incident is being reviewed and investigated by the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s office to determine if criminal charges are warranted. We have already shared information and had communication with our community about this incident on several occasions. However, we understand those conversations have less of an impact without the video evidence. In sensitive incidents related to police use of force it has been our practice to release as much information as possible as soon as it is available.

This investigation is under the control of the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office and we were specifically instructed not to release the video while their investigation was ongoing. We had sent several requests to the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office (on the record) to share the video with our community and public. Those requests were previously denied.

Today, in coordination with Chief Tracy Gove of the West Hartford Police Department, the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office authorized the release of the video. Any questions related to the criminal investigation should be directed to the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office.

The Hartford Police Department administrative investigation is ongoing, as we await evidence and findings from the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office. We take great care to partner and dialogue with our community every day, and we appreciate our community's input and ideas. As this investigation proceeds, we will continue to share the information we gather and communicate it openly.