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Death of a Young Man

May 14, 2005

The crowd of mourners gathered at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Hartford Friday fell into a momentary hush when Police Chief Patrick J. Harnett leaned over the front pew and hugged the father of Jashon Bryant, the 18-year-old man who was shot and killed last week by one of Harnett's officers.

Bryant's father, Keith Thomas, accepted the hug and exchanged a few civil words with Harnett before the chief continued making his way in a line of hundreds passing Bryant's coffin at his funeral.

Afterward, Thomas said he appreciated the appearance by Harnett and Assistant Chief Darryl Roberts, which Thomas said came at his invitation. Thomas said that while he believes the shooting of his son was unjustified, he wanted to send a message that he did not want his son's death to be used as a reason to create further division in the community.

``Jashon should not have died the way he did, and I will do everything I can to make sure we have justice, but I don't want there to be any more violence,'' he said. ``I'm a big enough man to welcome the chief.''

But an overwhelming sense among the crowd that Bryant was needlessly killed May 7 erupted later in the ceremony, when the Rev. Richard L. Nash told the crowd that healing cannot begin until the police do more to show they are committed to working as partners with residents.

``I mean no disrespect,'' Nash said, staring at Harnett in the congregation. ``But we all know there are phony police out there, crooked police out there, police on the take out there. It's got to stop!''

With that, the crowd stood on its feet and roared, a reaction that many said underscored the rift that has long existed between the police department and the largely African-American community in the city's North End, where Bryant was killed.

Earlier, as mourners were filing in, some of those who were close to Bryant gave way to wailing and loud sobs. One woman, who had to be helped out of the church, shouted, ``They murdered him! They're supposed to protect us, but they're murdering us!''

Harnett was not available to comment after the funeral.

Bryant, who was Thomas' only son, was killed when he and a friend, 21-year-old Brandon Henry, were approached by a Hartford police officer and a federal agent who were working as part of a new anti-gun task force.

The two officers suspected Bryant of carrying a gun into a car parked outside a North Main Street convenience store. The Hartford officer, Robert Lawlor, told investigators that he fired at the two men after Henry put the car in gear and began driving toward his partner, who was in front of the vehicle. Lawlor also said he saw Bryant reachingfor a gun at his feet, prompting him to fire four or five shots at Bryant.

Bryant was shot in the back of the head, killing him almost instantly; Henry was shot once in the chest. Henry was able to continue driving until he crashed into another car three blocks away at the corner of Clark and Nelson streets, where he got out and ran. He was found several minutes later hiding under a porch.

Henry, who is out on bond on charges of possession of narcotics, evading responsibility, driving with a suspended license and interfering with police, attended Bryant's funeral.

He also joined a crowd of several dozen mourners after the funeral who marched from the church to the parking lot where Bryant was killed.

Though Henry declined to discuss specifics of the incident, he told those at the rally that he and Bryant were not a threat to the officers.

``This was uncalled for,'' he said through tears. ``It didn't need to go down like this.''

Friends who have discussed the incident with Henry and asked not to be identified, said Henry told them he and Bryant did not recognize the officers as police because they were wearing plainclothes, and the young men feared they were about to be robbed.

Friends of the two men said Henry told them that once he and Bryant realized the men were police officers, they complied with the orders to hold their hands up, adding that he only put the car in gear and drove off after Lawlor opened fire, the friends said.

Henry has consistently denied Lawlor's contention that Bryant was carrying a gun, and police have not found a gun despite hours of searching.

At the rally Friday, the crowd broke into a chant of ``There was no gun.''

Some of Bryant's friends who spoke at the funeral later decried efforts by community leaders such as the Rev. Cornell Lewis, who organized the rally, to commemorate Bryant, saying Lewis and other leaders never knew him.

``You never did nothin' for my boy,'' 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez, a longtime friend of Bryant's, told Lewis when Lewis invited him to speak to the crowd at the rally. Referring to Lewis' well-publicized efforts to hold rallies on street corners in an effort to discourage drug dealing, Rodriguez said, ``All you ever did was force us off the corner,'' and then walked away.

Many people at the rally echoed Nash's claim that police don't do enough to gain the community's trust.

One 20-year-old man, who would identify himself by only his first name, Chris, said he has never had a friendly conversation with officers patrolling his neighborhoods.

``You would think at least one time, one of them would get out of their cruisers and maybe try to talk to us sometime, but that never happens,'' he said. ``To them, we're all criminals.'

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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