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Friday, May 30, 2008

Convict files suit against 3 city officers

Claims cops conducted illegal strip search following arrest

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— A state inmate has filed a federal lawsuit against three police officers he claims conducted an illegal strip search on him last year after an arrest.
An attorney for Dramese Fair, 26, filed the civil rights suit against the city and Lt. Holly Wasilewski, Sgt. Tony Reyes and Officer Dennis O’Connell, individually, for their roles in the alleged strip search, which the suit claims violated the department’s policy, and a warrantless body cavity search, which would have violated state law.
“Troubling set of allegations,” said Norm Pattis, Fair’s attorney. The suit doesn’t specify which of the officers Fair claims conducted the cavity search last June, but accuses all three of failing in their sworn obligation to prevent the violation of his rights.
Corporation Counsel John Ward said the his office would represent the city and outside counsel would be provided to the three officers. Asked the city’s position on the allegations, he responded, “I’m sure the outside counsel will deny that the things happened that are claimed in the lawsuit.”
That police did a search of Fair’s underwear for illegal contraband doesn’t appear to be in dispute, but the officers vehemently deny that anyone conducted a body cavity search on him.
The underwear check would have been completely proper had Fair been arrested on a felony charge, but departmental policy requires written approval from an uninvolved supervisor in cases involving lesser charges. Fair was arrested on misdemeanor counts. He is jailed on an unrelated conviction.
The union has been firm that the officers did nothing wrong, that the 1984 training bulletin related to strip searches is outdated, and that most police officers didn’t know of its existence. The union requested the city provide all completed strip search forms from the last 10 years and the city found none, the union said.
That was another issue raised in the lawsuit, which accused the city of failing to adequately train officers on the scope of a lawful search.
It appears that Pattis will not only put the officers’ actions on trial, but also the overall internal oversight at the department, which he claims rarely imposes “meaningful discipline” against officers accused of excessive force, illegal searches and seizures and acts of dishonesty.
“We’re going to use this lawsuit as an occasion to make a comprehensive examination of what happens in the internal affairs division in New Haven. As far as we can tell, not much,” said Pattis. “We intend on finding out what the fox who’s guarding the chicken coop had for dinner last night and what he intends to have for dinner tonight.”
The three officers face departmental charges, which are pending, and were ordered to appear before the Board of Police Commissioners in April. Members of the Hill neighborhood rallied around Wasilewski, the popular district manager whose position makes her the primary police contact for community members.
The hearing was canceled and a decision was made that the case would be handled at the police chief’s level, where less serious cases typically are heard.
Pattis contends it was canceled because the city didn’t want public scrutiny of illegal cavity searches, which Pattis claims routinely occur, based on anecdotal information from other attorneys whose clients made similar allegations.
Ward dismissed the lawsuit’s claim that the city in essence ratified the practice of illegal strip searches by failing to act on the internal charges against the three.
The police board referred the case back to the police chief during a transition period, with police Chief Francisco Ortiz Jr. retiring and Assistant Chief Stephanie Redding expected to serve as acting chief for a short time until a new chief was named, he said. That fell through when the chosen chief candidate turned down the job.
“I understand she will be acting on it in the near future,” Ward said.

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