After 37 years, a lawsuit may finally be nearing an end, but complaints continue
August 10, 2010
On the night of Sept. 28, 2007, Jermaine Aiken finished his shift as a package handler at the UPS facility on Locust Avenue in Hartford and was driving home to his mother’s house in Bloomfield when he was pulled over on Main Street for having a headlight out.
Aiken’s shift had ended at 10 p.m. and as he drove down Wethersfield Street toward Main he realized something had the police out in force.
“I drove past Park Street and saw a lot of cops down Park Street so I kept going past the fire station,” Aiken said in a recent interview. “As I got by the police station [on Main Street] there’s always two cruisers sitting outside and as soon as I drove past them one whipped around and stopped me on the other side.”
Pulled over near city hall, Aiken was asked to produce his driver’s license and registration. He had a headlight out, the result of an accident two weeks earlier. He also had no light inside the car, which was making it difficult to find his registration.
In the complaint he filed on Oct. 9, 2007, against officers David Marinelli and Martin Cunningham, Aiken describes what allegedly happened next. Tired of waiting for Aiken to produce his registration, one of the officers — Aiken doesn’t identify which one — said he was getting impatient and told Aiken to “get out of the damn car right now.”
“I was pulled from the car, I was told to put my hands up then I was cuffed and searched repeatedly,” writes Aiken. “The officer seems upset if I try to say something he said shut up. He then threw me on the ground, placed his knees in my back, while his partner held my arms down.”
Aiken writes that he began to protest, saying what was going on made no sense and was uncalled for, which, according to Aiken, turned out to be the wrong thing to say.
“The officer that held me down turn me over while cuffed and gave me several punches in my face and mouth,” writes Aiken. “He said shut up. Then took my hat and place it over my face and held the hat to my face as to suffocate me. After that he pulled my knees back and place his arms around my neck. He held me so tight and choked me to the point I could not breathe or say stop.”
In his complaint Aiken never uses the names of the officers to identify who allegedly did what, but in an interview with the Advocate he said it was Cunningham who was punching and choking him. By this time, says Aiken, several more officers had arrived at the scene and he was bent over the hood of another cruiser driven by an “older officer” whom he never identifies.
“I then started spitting up blood my mouth was bloody,” writes Aiken in his complaint. “The older officer told me if I get my spit on his car again he said ‘I am going to mace you.’ Another officer then place his elbow to my head and applied pressure.”
Aiken, who is black, says all of the officers involved were white, except one who was black, to whom he appealed, “Do you see what he is doing?”
“He told me ‘I don’t see nothing,’” writes Aiken in his complaint. “At that point I see some people walking across the street. I say to them ‘Hey you see what they doing to me, they are trying to kill me.’ The older officer then said ‘They don’t give a shit they are white.’”
Aiken was arrested for assaulting an officer and spent the weekend in jail before his mother could bail him out the following Monday. He says that when his mug shot was taken during booking “they should have seen my face was hit my lip was busted but they didn’t pay attention.” (The Advocate couldn’t get the mug shot or the police report because the case was dismissed more than 20 days ago and no public documents were available.) Twenty-three years old at the time, he took a plea bargain that placed him on probation for a year and required him to do 100 hours of community service.
After completing his probation, Aiken says he received a favorable letter from his probation officer that he presented to the court, and his case was dismissed.
“It’s as if it never happened,” says Sgt. Christine Mertes, public information officer for Hartford Police.
The dismissal of Aiken’s case was done for his benefit, but it also means that neither Mertes nor the court can provide any information, including the charges brought against Aiken, the reports of the officers involved, or the investigation by Internal Affairs.
Four months after turning his complaint over to Internal Affairs, Aiken says he was told the investigation was closed.
“They said they couldn’t do anything because it was the police’s word against mine,” says Aiken.
That’s a familiar scenario for Jeffrey Zyjeski, chairman of the Civilian Police Review Board, which conducts its own investigations of citizen complaints after the police department’s Internal Affairs Division completes its investigation. Zyjeski says it’s a rare occasion when the review board has actual physical evidence to go on.
“Sometimes there will be a picture or a cell phone recording,” says Zyjeski. “I remember one time a woman had her cell phone on and you could actually hear the officer over the cell phone. She was complaining about his language.”
Except for those instances, says Zyjeski, you get into that situation “where it’s his word against his word.” Assistant Chief Neil Dryfe, who commanded Internal Affairs for four years, agrees with Zyjeski.
“I’ve read hundreds of citizen complaints,” says Dryfe. “[Zyjeski] is correct when he says many, many times you’re talking about a situation where it comes down to one person’s word against another.”
In Aiken’s case, there are other arrests on his record that are also non-disclosable, although the Advocate obtained the police report from a different arrest on June 12, 2009 in Keney Park for interfering with police, failure to carry an insurance card, driving with a suspended license and illegal possession.
According to witnesses, Aiken had backed his car into another car after arguing with a female outside the vehicle. The arresting officer said Aiken denied driving the vehicle and “became hostile and began yelling toward the area citizens located in the park.” Aiken’s case is pending and his next court appearance is in October.
A review by the Advocate of 288 citizen complaints filed in 2007 and 2008, alleging misconduct ranging from Discourteous Attitude to Excessive Use of Force, showed that 212 complaints, including Aiken’s in 2007, were not sustained and 58 were sustained. Four complaints were partially sustained, seven were determined to be unfounded and in seven cases officers were exonerated. Of the 58 complaints that were sustained, the Internal Affairs Division disagreed with the civilian review board on 24, not sustaining the charges.
When a complaint is sustained it means the evidence shows the event happened as described by the complainant, says Zyjeski. When a complaint is not sustained, it means there’s not enough evidence to prove things one way or the other. When a complaint is unfounded it means the alleged event never happened; and when an officer is exonerated it means the event took place but “the officer did not act the way the complainant says,” explains Zyjeski.
The Civilian Police Review Board was formed in 1992 but by 2006 when Zyjeski took over it had long since devolved into an ineffective body frozen by internal bickering.
“What I came into was literally a huge backlog of complaints, like 400 or more,” says Zyjeski. “Basically they hadn’t acted on any cases. I was doing cases as far back as 1999.”
Zyjeski, an attorney and lobbyist, says he was recruited by former Mayor Eddie Perez to take over the review board. Zyjeski ran into Perez on a regular basis at the Capitol, and mentioned at one point that he’d like to help out the city in any way he could.
Perez jumped at the chance to enlist Zyjeski because of the pressure he felt from Cintron vs. Vaughan, the lawsuit filed against the city in 1973 that resulted in a federal consent decree governing three main areas of the operation of the police department: the functioning of the Internal Affairs Division, the process of firearms discharge review, and discrimination in hiring practices. The Civilian Review Board was formed in part in response to the lawsuit. Its members are recruited by the chair and appointed by the mayor and the Human Relations Commission.
Aiken’s story of an alleged beating by a Hartford cop also illustrates the issue at the heart of Cintron vs. Vaughan — discriminatory and abusive treatment of minorities by Hartford Police. The controversy has been brought to the boiling point over the years by fatal shootings of black youths by white officers who were then acquitted of any wrongdoing, such as the 1999 case of Aquan Salmon, a 14-year-old robbery suspect shot by Officer Robert Allan. More recently, there was the acquittal last December of Detective Robert Lawlor in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant in 2005 in the North End.
The federal consent decree requires the police department to consult the Cintron plaintiffs, most of whom are represented by Hartford attorney Sydney T. Shulman, when it wants to make any major changes in policy in the three areas covered by the lawsuit, something the department has not always done, says Shulman.
For example, in the early 1990s when the department wanted to change the weapons it issued to officers to .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols the process worked the way it was supposed to.
“When they wanted to switch from .38s to .45s they had to go through me,” says Shulman. “I talked to my clients to see if anyone had objections, and checked into the guns to see how they fired. Ultimately we gave permission.”
But when the department was contemplating the possible use of teargas and other chemicals banned by Cintron, Shulman said no. Fittingly, the Cintron lawsuit grew in large part out of the riots that wracked Hartford’s North End in the late 1960s as a result of the unrest surrounding the civil rights movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
A 1970 story in the Hartford Courant recalled a summer night in 1967 when things changed: “July 13 was a hot night with restless crowds on the streets in the North End. Even now the reasons seem unclear as does the first act; but, something galvanized the crowds to action. Windows were smashed, rocks were thrown, the area became unsafe for policemen or passing citizens. No one called it a ‘riot’ — but no other term seemed quite satisfactory. City officials huddled at police headquarters. There were many arrests. Policemen patrolled in helmets. The city was worried. There was more violence the next night. Streets were barricaded. Firebombs were thrown. Hartford, like much of the nation had entered the age of violence.”
Assistant Chief Dryfe describes the Wild West atmosphere encountered by Hartford Police at the time.
“City police officers were out here under very trying conditions,” says Dryfe. “[Police] were being fired on. There were essentially shootouts here and they weren’t being properly investigated.”
As a result, says Dryfe, the department designed a new policy on how officer-involved shootings would be investigated that was accepted in 1973 as part of the Cintron negotiations.
Schulman, who was executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc. in Hartford in 1969, was in the thick of things from the beginning.
“We were called the storefront lawyers, a program put in the streets unlike legal aid, which was typically in an office building downtown,” says Shulman. “The concept was to put lawyers for the poor out in the streets in the neighborhoods where they would serve people.”
During one of the riots at the corner of Main and Park streets, says Shulman, police used dogs.
“It was an unruly crowd. People threw bricks at the police. They unleashed dogs that went into the crowd and bit people,” says Shulman. “Using dogs for crowd control is one of the things forbidden in Cintron. That was the example [we used] of excessive use of force.”
Only this year, 37 years after it was filed, is Cintron nearing a point where the case may finally end. Schulman says an agreement was reached earlier this year that could result in the consent decree being lifted if all goes well between his clients and the police department over the next five years.
“If everything is hunky dory and there are no complaints [by the Cintron plaintiffs], then Cintron would terminate in October 2015,” says Shulman. “However if there are problems that come up requiring negotiation and/or contempt citations between now and then we have the right to object to [lifting the consent decree].”
Meanwhile Zyjeski says the Civilian Review Board has whittled the backlog of complaints down to about 150, while also trying to keep up with current complaints. The board gets 200 to 300 new complaints each year, says Zyjeski, and doesn’t always have its full complement of nine members. More often there are seven at the monthly meetings.
“There are issues getting people to sit on the board,” Zyjeski says. “It’s a lot of work, difficult technical reading.”
Aiken, now 25, still works at UPS as a package handler and says he’s staying out of trouble. He says he spent about $2,500 to hire a lawyer and private investigators to try to substantiate his story but nothing came of it.
“The private investigators called me after a couple of months and said the investigation was over and they didn’t find anything that could be brought to court, so I said OK what can I do about it?” says Aiken. “I can’t do anything about it.”