New Haven police shooting: Bodycams improperly used after woman shot near Yale

"This is unheard of that we're putting it out so quickly. What's important is transparency and trust," State Police Commissioner James Rovella said.
Image: Connecticut State Police released bodycam video Tuesday of a police shooting in New Haven on April 16 in which a woman was wounded.
Connecticut State Police released bodycam video Tuesday of a police shooting in New Haven on April 16 in which a woman was wounded.Connecticut State Police

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By Erik Ortiz

HAMDEN, Conn. — One of two officers who opened fire on an unarmed black couple inside a car in New Haven, Connecticut, should have turned his body camera on sooner, while the other officer failed to turn his on at all, state police said Tuesday.

In releasing video and audio from the April 16 shooting, in which a 22-year-old female passenger was wounded by police gunfire, Connecticut State Police Commissioner James Rovella said that "in a perfect world without the stressors" the bodycams would have been properly employed.

Rovella confirmed during a news conference that investigators "did not find a gun" on the driver, Paul Witherspoon III. While bodycam video from one of the officers showed Witherspoon getting out of his car and appearing to surrender, Rovella said, the video was being sent for forensic enhancements as part of the investigation.

The release of the video and 911 audio follows days of protests by residents in New Haven and neighboring Hamden as well as students from nearby Yale, who demanded that the video be made public.

"This is unheard of that we're putting it out so quickly," Rovella said. "What's important is transparency and trust."

The shooting occurred just after 4:15 a.m. April 16 on a residential street less than a mile from Yale's campus, according to state police.

At the time, police in Hamden, a majority white town of 60,900 bordering New Haven to the north, were investigating reports of an armed robbery at a gas station.

A Yale police officer who had been patrolling the campus joined a Hamden officer "based on a 911 call reporting that a person driving the vehicle had a gun," Yale said in a news release last week.

In a 911 call placed at the gas station, the caller told dispatch that a "regular customer driving a red car ... pulled a gun at the guy who delivered the paper" and that it was "clear he was asking for money outside."

The driver was later identified as Witherspoon, 21. His passenger, Stephanie Washington, was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, university officials said. An updated condition was not immediately provided Tuesday.

State Police Trooper Josue Dorelus said during a news conference last week that officers opened fire when the driver "exited the vehicle in an abrupt manner" and turned toward them. However, no weapon was found at the scene, officials said.

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Footage from the scene after an officer-involved shooting occurred in New Haven, Conn., on April 16, 2019.Larry Mingrone / via Facebook

Before the bodycam video was released, surveillance video from the street captured only part of the incident. It appeared to show Hamden police Officer Devin Eaton parking his SUV to the rear of the red Honda Civic and exiting with his gun drawn. At that moment, the driver was exiting the vehicle. The officer fired as he crossed to the passenger's side and continued to fire his weapon before running from the car.

In another surveillance video from the scene, the Yale officer, Terrance Pollock, appeared to step out of his car with his weapon drawn. He then retreated away from his vehicle, which was left in drive and began rolling forward.

Rovella on Tuesday called the scene "chaotic" and said Pollock's body camera and dashboard camera were not turned on.

Pollock suffered a non-life-threatening injury in the shooting and was believed to have been hit by a "projectile" from Eaton, Rovella added.

Eaton's body camera was clicked on only after the shooting began. A recall function was used to retrieve video from a few seconds before the record button was hit, Rovella said. The audio did not kick in until after Eaton had already run from Witherspoon's car. He could be heard shouting, "Shots fired."

Rovella said the lack of sufficient video and audio was "inconsistent" with state policies and procedures.

According to the state's Police Officer Standards and Training Council guidelines, officers should generally activate their cameras "at the inception of the interaction with the public," including during vehicular pursuits.

Witherspoon's attorney, Michael Dolan, said earlier Tuesday that the surveillance video "supports our claim that he wasn't doing anything wrong and that the police officers acted inappropriately and it would appear with at least reckless abandon."

The entire incident lasted about five or six seconds. New Haven police arrived at the scene after the shots were fired.

Witherspoon was detained and released, and he had not been charged with any crime, Rovella said Tuesday. Rodney Williams, an uncle, said that the initial robbery report was an exaggerated claim based on heated words Witherspoon had with a newspaper delivery worker at the gas station and that his nephew wasn't armed.

The Connecticut State's Attorney's Office is investigating the shooting along with state police. An investigation could be completed in two to three months, Rovella said.

Eaton has been placed on paid administrative leave. He was an officer in New Haven before joining the Hamden police force less than three years ago.

Pollock, a 16-year veteran of the Yale department, was also placed on paid leave.

Both officers are black.

Neither Hamden town officials nor Yale immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday about the body cameras.

At a community listening forum in Hamden on Monday night, residents, social activists and faith leaders demanded the release of the bodycam video, called for the officers involved to be fired and demanded an independent investigation.

"It's nothing but the grace of God that my nephew's here," Williams said.

He added that just because his nephew wasn't shot doesn't mean he isn't haunted by what happened.

"He's traumatized for the rest of his life," he added.

Hamden resident James Atwell, who is black, said the policing culture in town must change.

"I can see who they were protecting, but who were they serving?" he asked before bringing the focus back to Washington.

"She almost lost her life," he added. "She didn't deserve that."