The City of Hamden was rocked this week by protestors angry about the shooting of a young woman, Stephanie Washington, by a Hamden police officer. Here’s my prediction – the City will pay the young woman $2.5 million to avoid a lengthy courtroom fight.
My phone lit up the evening of the shooting. Reporters wanted to know whether the City could withhold evidence of the shooting, which took place earlier that day.
“They can,” I told one reporter. The law enforcement privilege permits the police to keep evidence to itself during an investigation. The demands of protestors for immediate action and answers were understandable, I said, but premature.
The fact is that police officers have a right to use force, even lethal, or deadly force, when they are faced with an immediate risk of serious physical injury. Was this shooting justified? I had no idea when I spoke to the reporter.
It sounded like the shooting might have been justified, at least based on what the police were saying.
Officers were investigating reports of an armed robbery in the early morning hours on Tuesday in Hamden They spotted a car they contended matched the description of the suspect’s vehicle. They tried to stop the car – it was unclear whether there was a chase or not. When an officer stopped the car in New Haven, a young man got out of the passenger side and seemed to reach for a gun.
That will get you shot in most jurisdictions most of the time. Furtive movements – rapid or suspicious hand gestures during a police stop -- are a recipe for disaster. I’ve been around enough police misconduct cases to know the following: When a cop stops me in my car, I put my hands on the steering wheel, I keep them there until I am given permission to move them, and I move them slowly, explaining to the officer what I am doing.
Does this make me a slave? No. Do I resent it? Yes. But I know that on the streets officers don’t know who is friend and who is foe. Two of the deadliest encounters officers have are traffic stops and domestics.
But here’s the rub in the Washington case. A video shown on the news shows that the passenger did not get out of the car with anything in his hands; indeed, he appears not to have left the car at all The video makes it look like the officer approached the car and opened fire. Nothing visible in the video shown on the news justifies the shooting.
However, the officer retreats as he shoots, reacting in apparent fear to something he saw. His body camera will shed necessary light.
The Connecticut State Police have been called in to conduct an independent investigation. Their work will be supervised by New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, a man I know to be a straight shooter and an honest man. Despite the public outcry for action now, the investigators will be methodic and thorough.
Here’s my prediction.
The Hamden officer who fired the shots, Devin Eaton, will not be charged with a crime. His fearful reaction as he retreated firing shots tells me that he perceived something that scared him, causing him to fear for his safety. The law will require that his conduct be evaluated from the standpoint of what a reasonable officer would do under the totality of the circumstances.
I’m betting the shooting will pass muster as a matter of criminal and constitutional law. Officers have the right a matter of state and federal law to respond with lethal force if they legitimately believe their live are in danger.
But that is not the end of the inquiry.
The real question is just what did Eaton think he was doing? His approach of Ms. Washington’s car was wrong, dead wrong. He was trained to react in a more cautious and sensible manner.
The car was stopped because it contained occupants whom the police believe may have been involved in an armed robbery. This was not a routine traffic stop. Police officers are trained to await back up before approaching a car in such circumstances, and when they do approach the car, they are taught to do so from a position of cover.
The sole video that has thus far been published makes Eaton look reckless. He rushed from his car, apparently heedless of the danger, and quickly approached the passenger side of the car. Within seconds, he was firing at the car, even as he backed up fearfully.
State law permits a police officer to be sued for negligence in certain very narrow circumstances. This case appears to be one of those circumstances. The officer appeared to create the very danger than resulted in his shooting. He doesn’t get a commendation for that.
So why the forecast of a $2.5 million settlement?
Police shootings in highly publicized police shootings resulting in death have been settling around the United States in the $5 million to $6 million range. Ms. Washington survived this shooting. The case is a political hot potato. Ms. Washington is represented, according to the press, by a former state legislator, Win Smith, of Milford.
Candidly, New Haven’s Mayor Toni Harp should be required to ante up some of the settlement – she expressed outrage before she had a chance to investigate the shooting: Is it any wonder morale in the New Haven Police Department is low? The mayor shoots with her lip and asks questions later. She’s poured flames on a combustible mix neither New Haven nor Hamden can afford to let smolder for long.
The case is already national news with the predictable narrative such cases yield.
Local police departments have been bracing themselves since Ferguson for the consequences of a police shooting. We’ve had one now. No one wants this case litigated. It would be better to resolve the lawsuit quickly and to then focus on how better to train police officers.
This shooting appears unnecessary, a result either of poor training, or carelessness.