Judge Patrick J. Clifford tapped the microphone in front of him. It was 10:53 a.m. on Tuesday, November 5, the windiest day of the week, but within the windowless courtroom on the sixth floor of the New Haven County Courthouse, the air was musty and warm. Clifford announced, “This is State v. Devin Eaton.”
Officer Eaton, dressed in a gray suit, his sideburns neatly trimmed, strode into the small courtroom with Win Smith III, his attorney. Smith declared Eaton’s not guilty plea. Within ten minutes, Judge Clifford recorded Hamden police officer Devin Eaton’s not guilty plea on the docket and announced his next court date, December 10. Just as quickly as he had entered, Eaton disappeared from the room. He didn’t say a word.
Last April, while on duty as a Hamden police officer, Eaton shot an unarmed woman, Stephanie Washington, 22, in the face. Despite increasing pressure from activists and the instatement of Eaton’s felony charges on October 21, he still retains his police badge and walks free, having paid $100,000 in bail on the day of his arrest.
Eaton was the first Connecticut officer to be charged for an on-duty shooting in fourteen years, according to the Yale Daily News. His felonies include one count of first-degree assault and two accounts of reckless endangerment. But Eaton’s movement through the judicial process, state investigation, and internal police investigation has been hindered by a collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, between Hamden’s Police Labor Union and the town’s police department. In the state of Connecticut, around a hundred municipalities have signed police CBAs, since the nineteen-sixties. These contracts originally guaranteed reasonable work hours, healthcare, and protected child labor, but they have also made it harder to hold police officers accountable for violations of the law. The Hamden Police Department is one of several departments across the nation that has struggled to fire an officer for misconduct due to the terms of a CBA.
The incident that has tested the limits of local police accountability systems occurred six months ago in a matter of minutes. At 4:20 a.m. on April 16, a clerk working the night shift at Go On gas station in Hamden called 911. The clerk told the operator that an African American male with dreadlocks, who was driving a red car with a female passenger, pulled a gun on a newspaper delivery employee to ask him for money. Earlier in the night, the clerk said, that same man had been “harassing” a different customer.
Hamden Police immediately sent officers Devin Eaton and Keron Bryce to Dixwell Avenue, where the two suspects had fled, according to the clerk. A dispatch went out to both New Haven Police and Yale Police, stating, “Just had a street robbery happen in our town, was heading in your direction on Dixwell Avenue, with a gun used in a street robbery,” according to the State’s Attorney Report.
Eaton and Yale officer Terrance Pollock drove separately onto Argyle Street, lined by four beige-gray houses interspersed by vacant yards. Moments later, Paul Witherspoon arrived at the street in a red vehicle with Washington in the passenger seat. Just when Witherspoon emerged from the car with his hands rising into the air, Officer Eaton unholstered his handgun and fired in the direction of the car. Witherspoon ducked back into the car.
Eaton says that in this moment, he feared for his life. “As he began to turn towards me, I saw the operator begin to raise his right arm up and it appeared that he was holding an object in his right hand, which appeared to be a gun,” he said in testimony included in the State’s Attorney Report.
As Witherspoon reentered the car, Eaton moved to the rear, still firing. He advanced to the other side of the car, where he shot Stephanie Washington in the face. In total, Eaton fired thirteen bullets before he fled down Argyle Street. Pollock, who fired three bullets, was grazed in the leg by one of Eaton’s.
Later in his testimony, Eaton claimed that he thought he was acting in self-defense. “I was afraid that the operator was going to shoot me and cause me serious bodily harm or death.”
However, the Report’s account of Witherspoon’s testimony states that Witherspoon “never did anything to provoke the police to shoot at him. He was following the orders from the police officer.” When exiting his car, he pushed open the door with his left hand and stuck both arms out the door first to indicate that he had no weapon. Later investigations revealed that both Witherspoon and Washington were unarmed.
“[Eaton is] responding to what he believes is an attempted gun robbery,” Win Smith III, Officer Eaton’s attorney, told me on the phone, two days after the trial. “The man gets out of the car quickly. He can’t see his hands. He believes there’s a gun involved. He can’t see the person’s hand, and he fires.”
Washington later recounted in the report that she was leaning back between the driver’s and passenger’s seat to duck for cover. “It was like being in a nightmare,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Both parties—Eaton and the two victims—claimed to have feared for their lives. Yet in the months that followed the shooting, members of the public have debated whether Eaton’s fears were justified. Eaton says he thought he was facing armed suspects in a robbery. But he, too, was armed—and as a police officer, he had the ability to call back-up.
The week after the shooting, New Haven’s streets flooded with protesters and signs; Wall Street was awash with a sea of passionate students and community members throughout the week, demanding the disarmament of Yale police officers and the discharge of Officer Eaton.
One of the New Haven activists, Kerry Ellington, believes that Eaton is a criminal, and should be treated as one. “What we witnessed was two officers jumping out of a car and playing video games that night,” Ellington said, speaking metaphorically. “There were children who were terrified that night. They heard the gunshots and ducked down.”
Ellington wants Eaton to be viewed by the court first as a citizen, then a police officer. “There needs to be immediate consequences,” Ellington said. “The fact that they’re being held to a different standard and the process for police officers is different than what any other human being would go through. It’s egregious. It shows that our system is compliant with police violence.”
But any immediate consequences for Eaton have been stalled by labor contracts that Hamden can’t legally circumvent. These types of contracts, called collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, first originated in 1806, when skilled shoemakers in Philadelphia gathered together to demand higher wages, forming the first collective bargaining agreement, or CBA. Since then, labor unions in hundreds of other industries have joined their ranks to protect basic rights such as limited work hours, child labor laws, and healthcare. CBAs are essential for protecting workers, but they also have some drawbacks. Police labor unions, which originally formed in the nineteenth century to push for limited working hours, began negotiating strict CBAs with local municipal governments. These contracts must be signed by both parties, and voted upon by legislative councils for approval every eight years.
According to ACLU activist Melvin Medina, Hamden’s police commission, which acts as a governing body for the police department, should have the power to investigate and discipline, and discharge officers. Yet the police commission lost these powers when it signed the CBA with Hamden’s police labor union. “The town willingly negotiated its rights away,” said Medina. “It’s actually the mayor and the legislative council that’s agreeing to this.”
Medina suggested that the town signed the CBA because it has set a precedent for decades of signing these agreements. Many legislative council members also may not be reading through the entire contract, Medina said—at least, that was the case in Hartford. If the legislative council members had actually received a full copy of the agreement, he believes they would push back on it. Various articles of Hamden’s agreement override the police commission’s power to discipline police. The contract requires that a written complaint be signed by the complainant and submitted within sixty days of an incident; otherwise, no disciplinary action can be taken. “This creates a system in which you time yourself out,” Medina said. The agreement also allows for gaps in police officers’ files—making it possible for recorded histories of a police officer’s actions to be incomplete. “How many complaints has [Eaton] gotten in the past?” Medina questioned. “We actually don’t know, since it’s not in his file.”
In reality, according to two members of Hamden’s legislative council, the entire collective bargaining agreement has been shown to all members. When asked whether she’d read through the CBA, member Judy Clouse said, “Yes, I did. However, it was more of a, I need to sit with this understand it more, and not, I need to have it changed immediately. Now that I’ve been in for two years, I think there are changes that can be made.”
Clouse hesitated when asked about the plausibility of future negotiations to alter the CBA. “I hope there will be negotiations,” she said.
Legislative council president Michael McGarry, on the other hand, was more explicit about the reality of CBAs undergoing any future change. “Negotiations are hard,” McGarry said. “It’s hard to get changes into the union contract. Not to say that it’s impossible.”
In order to discipline Eaton, the Hamden police department must hold a hearing by December 21, sixty days after his felony charges were brought forth by the state on October 21. Activists worry that the city will take no action, and that Eaton’s pay will be reinstated in the new year, sustaining his employment and status as a police officer. However, Michael McGarry, president of the Hamden Legislative Council, claims that there is a reason for the CBA’s massive power: “to protect labor folks, so that towns can’t make some resolution that takes away workers’ rights,” McGarry said in an interview on WNHH Radio. According to McGarry the drawn-out investigations into Eaton’s conduct are slow for a reason. “Everything seems to be working,” McGarry said. “It just takes a little longer. Part of the reason for that is that we need to make sure that everything is done as close to perfect as humanly possible. We want to make sure that there’s no automatic appeal to his termination.”
Medina called McGarry’s argument “a red herring.” He said that the CBA does not actually prevent the city of Hamden from organizing an independent investigation into Eaton before the state’s investigation concluded. Frustrated with the city’s lack of action, the ACLU filed a public records request, inquiring about a policy that keeps the city from conducting an independent investigation. Medina said the city “did not produce any documents backing this up.”
In Medina’s ideal world, the city of Hamden would instate an independent investigative body to deal with cases like Eaton’s. Completely unaffiliated with the police department and police commission, the agency would have the power to objectively analyze police misconduct cases. “We need more democratic control over policing,” Medina said. “In Hamden, you see a [police commission] that has the power to hold police accountable, but for legal reasons, are not able to.”
When asked whether two simultaneous investigations into Eaton are allowed under Hamden policy, both Clouse and McGarry did not comment. However, McGarry offered, “I don’t blame the state attorney or anyone for trying to take all the time they can to make sure that it is done really well.”
Clouse, on the other hand, warned that “If there are two different investigations going on [at the same time], that can throw the whole thing off,” giving Eaton a chance to appeal. She wants to follow protocol as closely and slowly as possible. In the eyes of these council members, slow means careful. And careful is a means to construct a foolproof case against Eaton that won’t be appealed.
Activists, however, still push to break down this bureaucratic system that essentially has its hands tied.
At the Hamden Memorial Town Hall, the microphone shut off at around 5:50 p.m. on November 13, but Roxana Walker-Canton, activist and Hamden resident, soldiered on. “My name is Roxie,” she said. Her voice was muffled, her back turned to the crowd as she stood at the podium at Hamden’s monthly police commission meeting on November 13. Walker-Canton and her pastel sweater struck a soft contrast to the gray-and-white garbed members of the Hamden Police Commission, seven of whom sat in a semi-circle before her.
One of the commissioners shook his head before leaning into his microphone. “I don’t think the microphone’s working,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
A woman, seated in the crowd behind the podium where Walker-Canton stood, whispered to her peers, “They don’t care if they can’t hear us anyway.”
After a few tweaks, the microphone revived. Walker-Canton’s voice echoed against the olive-colored walls of the town hall. The meeting resumed—the sixth since the shooting. And still, Washington’s shooting wasn’t written on the meeting agenda. The activists’ demands—to hold Eaton accountable through the justice system and to discharge him—seemed to have gone unheard.
Six months after Eaton pulled the trigger, tensions between activists and police are rising. A series of steps toward consequences—the State’s decision to charge Eaton as a felon, Eaton’s recent not guilty plea, and the ticking of the clock as the December 21 deadline for Hamden Police’s hearing—have given activists hope that perhaps this time, justice within the courtroom will be served.
“My name is Roxie,” Walker-Canton repeated in a low, steady voice. “I am appalled at the lack of attention placed on this case. I am appalled that [Stephanie] hasn’t been put on the agenda until now. Their bodies were put in a situation where they could’ve been killed. The commission needs to see that this is important. It’s a public health issue when you talk about police brutality.”
The crowd exploded into snaps. Ellington, dressed in muted baby blue, stood amongst a crowd of around one hundred protesters holding “JUSTICE FOR STEPHANIE AND PAUL” posters.
“Talk about it,” Ellington yelled.
As Walker-Canton continued speaking into the microphone, her voice passionate, rising in volume, the seven commissioners stared straight ahead past her, expressions blank.
—Candice Wang is a junior in Berkeley College and an Associate Editor of The New Journal.