NHPD actions under fire

Joe Pelletier

Recent New Haven police conduct is “indefensible,” one New Haven civil rights lawyer said. Another identified one instance of false arrest and a “chilling of the First Amendment.” The lawyer for the recently-raided Alchemy Nightclub likened certain officers to “storm troopers.”

“This is a stain on our police department, our constitution and our city,” William Palmieri, a New Haven civil rights lawyer, said. “It’s a disaster.”

Such was Palmieri’s response to several online videos that show New Haven police officers cursing, screaming and commanding citizens to stop recording police encounters.

The videos surfaced in the midst of “Operation: Nightlife,” a New Haven police campaign to “ensure safety downtown” through a greater police presence, according to city spokesperson Jessica Mayorga.

A Saturday press release from the New Haven Police Department acknowledged inquiries about officer conduct. The NHPD will “investigate fully any complaint or reasonable suspicion of that kind of behavior,” the press release reads.

During a raid of the Elevate Lounge at the Alchemy Nightclub early Saturday morning, witnesses say police officers threatened to handcuff and arrest any person who used cell phones to text or photograph the scene, according to the Yale Daily News.

A week earlier, Quinnipiac senior Kenneth Hartford was told by an officer outside of Toad’s Place to “put that in your fucking pocket,” referring to Hartford’s cell phone.

According to Palmieri, a New Haven lawyer for 17 years, both instances were unequivocally unconstitutional.

“Those officers weren’t acting in any lawful capacity,” Palmieri said of Hartford’s video. “They were acting like rogue cowboys – they were bully boys. And the one officer challenging the person’s filming of this unlawful conduct – he was acting absolutely unreasonably and unconstitutionally.”

Mayor John DeStefano feels strongly about the public’s right to record, Mayorga said, “absolutely.” But questions abounded when police officers threatened arrest upon anyone who recorded the raid at Alchemy. According to New Haven lawyer John Williams, the police threats were a violation of the First Amendment.

“The fact that they deterred them from recording what was going on–that’s a chilling of the First Amendment,” Williams said.

Webster’s Dictionary of Law identifies the chilling effect as the “inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of a constitutional right.” Williams recognized the police’s threat to arrest those who record or text message as a clear example.

As of Tuesday, New Haven Chief of Police Frank Limon had not responded to questions about police procedure with citizen recording.

“We need the cops there, but we need the cops to obey the law,” Williams, a practicing lawyer for 40 years in New Haven, said.

No United States or Connecticut laws explicitly deny the right to record audio or video in a public setting. Certain state governments, like Massachusetts, use wiretapping statutes to prosecute filmed police encounters. No such statutes have been upheld in Connecticut.

In a letter to Limon, Alchemy lawyer John Carta addressed additional points of alleged police misconduct:

“We are still gathering information, however, it appears that members of the New Haven Police Department overacted and became belligerent, threatening, and were brandishing weapons, marching through the premises like storm troopers, assaulting patrons, swearing at the patrons, and insulting patrons who showed foreign identifications.” (See full letter at bottom of page)

E-mails to Mayor DeStefano’s office and the NHPD with questions on police conduct remain unanswered.

Quinnipiac’s only official statement on the matter comes from Vice President for Public Affairs Lynn Bushnell, who said student safety “is of paramount importance.”

“To that end, we implemented a shuttle service to New Haven several years ago and its popularity has increased over the years,” she said. “We are aware that the mayor has expressed concern about all students who frequent certain parts of the downtown area. If there are steps we can take to further ensure the safety of our students as they travel in and out of New Haven, we would surely discuss that with the appropriate parties.”

The Alchemy raid is currently under investigation from the NHPD and Yale officials, the Daily News reports.

Alchemy attorney writes to New Haven Chief of Police Frank Limon

Document via New Haven Independent