An outside investigator found that a Hartford police officer shoved a man who was filming a violent arrest in May, contrary to the statements of that officer and his supervisor, according to a memo from Chief Jason Thody.
The bystander’s video of the incident circulated online in June, prompting questions about use of force and police accountability from members of the public and Hartford’s city council. In the end, their primary concern was not the arrest itself, in which an officer was headbutted by a suspect, but Officer Brian Herrmann’s physical interaction with a bystander.
The internal investigation was made public Friday by Councilman Josh Michtom, a Working Parties Family member and public defender, who shared a Sept. 30 email from Thody with The Courant.
Michtom also expressed concern about the incident on Twitter. In a video and text thread, he argued the department’s handling of the incident speaks to a bigger problem with the culture of Hartford police.
“We have a whole bunch of officers basically covering for their colleague. We have a police department basically making excuses for an officer who can’t keep his temper under control and uses violence against a civilian," Michtom said. "This is the kind of stuff that if it goes unchecked eventually is going to lead to tragedy.”
Herrmann received counseling from his supervisor, Sgt. Michael Creter, and a recommendation for retraining in de-escalation techniques and conflict management. Thody ordered the training, saying Herrmann “fell well short” of his expectations.
On May 20, Herrmann was one of several officers involved in the arrest of a combative suspect on Nelson Street in the North End, according to Thody’s Sept. 16 memo on the internal investigation. While Herrmann was engaging with the suspect, another officer confronted a man who was filming the scene and loudly criticizing the officers.
That officer told the witness to back up or he could be arrested for interfering with police, and the witness complied.
After Herrmann helped place the suspect in the back of a cruiser, he confronted the same man, who was standing at the curb calling the officers obscenities and claiming they were violating the suspect’s rights.
Herrmann strode up to the witness, shouting “Violating his rights? He just headbutted an officer. Do me a favor and back up, back up and get out of here."
He made contact with the man, causing him to fumble his phone and step back.
But to read Herrmann’s account in the police report, there was no physical contact at all. He wrote, “While approaching the unknown party, he stepped back and dropped his phone,” according to the investigation.
But on June 12, Thody received an email with the link to the bystander’s video, raising the question of whether Herrmann should have filled out a special form for use of force.
Hartford police are required to report all physical strikes or contact that restricts a person’s movement, short of escorting someone or handcuffing them with minimal or no resistance.
Creter, supervisor of the Street Crimes Unit, reviewed the incident and said in a July 3 report that he couldn’t definitively say whether Herrmann made contact with the witness. If he did, however, Creter said Herrmann acted properly “in order to maintain control of the scene and prevent additional violations of law” and did not need to report the contact as a use of force.
On July 22, Thody sought a second opinion from an assistant inspector general in California. In his memo, the chief explained that he thought the case was up to interpretation.
Django Sibley, who leads the use of force section of the Los Angeles Police Commission’s Office, shared his findings with Thody on July 31, saying Herrmann did give the bystander an open-hand shove and should have reported it as a use of force, per Hartford’s policies.
Sibley also noted that Hartford police hold officers to a higher standard than many police departments, such as Cleveland and Seattle, where it’s not considered a use of force for an officer to push someone back.
Sibley serves on the team that monitors Cleveland’s compliance with a federal settlement agreement, and previously did the same with Seattle. He also made a recommendation that will clarify the city’s use of force policy going forward.
In Thody’s Sept. 16 memo signaling the end of the investigation, he said Herrmann should not have necessarily known that he should report the shove.
Herrmann has has still faced some repercussions.
Creter determined Herrmann did not activate his body-worn camera, in violation of department orders. Hermann wrote in a report that he didn’t activate his camera until it was safe to do so, but he was actually on the scene of the arrest for more than a minute before the incident escalated into violence, with the suspect headbutting another officer.
Internal affairs may charge Herrmann with negligent failure to comply with department orders, procedures, directives and regulations. It was not clear Friday whether Herrmann has been disciplined.
Thody sent his final report to Michtom in response to the councilman’s Sept. 4 email requesting the internal investigation. Michtom wrote that a month had already passed since Thody told the councilman that the report was getting its final review.
While Thody received Sibley’s findings in July, he did not write his own memo until Sept. 16.
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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