Chief sees no pattern of misconduct
By Will Healey, Journal Inquirer
Published: July 28, 2016
Former Enfield police Officer Matthew Worden and his police dog, Falco, compete in 2013 in the 22nd annual Connecticut K9 Olympics in Mansfield. Worden is the subject of eight lawsuits against the Enfield Police Department claiming excessive use of force by police. (Jared Ramsdell / Journal Inquirer)(Jared Ramsdell / Journal Inquirer)
ENFIELD — There are 11 lawsuits pending against the Police Department, according to a summary of pending litigation provided by Town Attorney Christopher Bromson’s office, and all involve claims that one or more police officers used excessive or unreasonable force during arrests from 2010-14.
Eight of the lawsuits, however, involve one now former officer, Matthew Worden, whom the Police Department tried to arrest and fire for his actions in the arrest of Windsor resident Mark Maher, 26, in April 2014.
All the lawsuits were filed after Maher made a police brutality complaint against Worden and three other officers. Nine of the lawsuits, including the one eventually filed by Maher, are being handled by A. Paul Spinella, a lawyer based in Hartford.
Maher’s complaint, and a subsequent police internal affairs investigation, resulted in the firing of Worden in October 2014, though he was later allowed to resign under a settlement with the town. Officers Michael Emons and Jamie Yott were also suspended following the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Maher’s arrest.
According to Bromson, the spate of excessive force lawsuits between 2014 and the present is the most he’s seen since he started working for the town in 1990.
“I don’t ever recollect any such grouping of cases like this,” he said.
Bromson said the town has dealt with some “nuisance” cases involving the Police Department over the years, in which he said the town has settled based on recommendations from its insurance carrier when the cost of settling is less than the cost of litigating.
“We’ve had intermittent cases every few years, but never anything like this, born out of media attention from one case,” Bromson said. The “one case” Bromson is referring to is the Maher case. An internal affairs investigation into the April 1, 2014, incident concluded that Worden used excessive force in detaining Maher during a nighttime search at the Donald Barnes Boat Launch on River Street.
The internal affairs investigation cited video recorded by police cruiser dashboard cameras that showed Worden striking Maher several times in the face while he was detained on the ground by Emons and Yott. It also showed Emons slam another detained man’s head against the hood of Maher’s car.
Maher, in his lawsuit, said that Worden, after punching him while on the ground, kneeled on his neck and handcuffed him.
Police had charged Maher with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest in the incident — charges that an Enfield judge would later dismiss with no objection from prosecutor Christopher Parakilas, who said, “It seemed to be the fair and just thing to do.”
An attempt by the Police Department to arrest Worden — a 10-year-member of the force — on charges of third-degree assault and fabricating evidence in the Maher case was rejected by Hartford State’s Attorney Gail P. Hardy, who concluded the state could not prove the charges.
The department suspended Emons for 90 days and Yott for 60 days, both without pay, for their roles in Maher’s arrest, though the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration later ruled Yott’s punishment was too excessive and she was given 30 days back pay.
In the weeks and months following Maher’s brutality complaint, a flurry of notices of intent to sue the Police Department were filed with the town, nearly all brought by Spinella.
Spinella, who is also representing a South Carolina couple who plans to sue the Police Department over their arrest on charges of loitering on school grounds in March, has called the department a “wolfpack” that’s “run roughshod over people’s rights for over a decade.”
The cases pending against the Police Department are:
In the Demers’ intent to sue, filed in April, they claim violation of their civil rights in their wrongful arrest on loitering charges when Daniel, during a visit, was showing his wife the schools he had attended in town. Those listed as responsible for damages include the town, the Police Department, and several officers and Sferrazza.
Sferrazza, who was unable to discuss any of the lawsuits specifically per a recommendation from the town’s legal counsel, said the string of lawsuits is an aberration, not a trend.
“If you go back a decade and look at our track record, you’ll see that we don’t have a history of being sued a lot,” he said.
Since 2007, a year after Sferrazza became chief, 57 lawsuits have been filed against the Police Department, according to records in the town clerk’s office. Of those, 43 cases have been closed, the majority of which were auto liability claims from people involved in collisions with police vehicles. Six of those cases involved claims of excessive force.
Sferrazza also pointed out that many of the lawsuits pending are for incidents that occurred two to four years before the Maher incident, and aside from Maher and the sister of Eric Avalos who filed complaints, none of the other parties did.
“I find that odd,” he said.
Spinella argued that was because, according to his clients, officers “went around and intimidated them,” telling them that “if they made complaints, they’d be subject to arrest.”
“They were victims of terror,” he said.
Spinella also took issue with the way the department handles the complaint and investigation process internally without the external oversight of an entity like a citizen’s review board.
“They do pseudo-investigations involving a few higher-level officers,” he said. “That’s like asking the fox to go to the chicken coop.”
Sferrazza, however, said the department takes complaints against officers very seriously, particularly because it has to follow certain protocols in order to maintain its accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. — more commonly known by the acronym CALEA.
CALEA, a voluntary-to-join nonprofit organization that calls itself “the gold standard in public safety,” reviews participating agencies against 484 best practice standards in person every three years, and requires agencies to submit reports in the years between.
The Police Department, which is one of just 19 Connecticut agencies accredited by CALEA as of 2015, has been accredited by the organization since 1996, and was recently emphatically endorsed by a CALEA on-site assessment team for its sixth re-accreditation.
During the department’s re-accreditation review in early June, 15 people — a combination of residents and local, regional, and state officials that included the top official in the state police, Col. Alaric Fox — attended a public hearing held by the CALEA assessment team, and all spoke in favor of the department.
One of the speakers was Mayor Scott R. Kaupin, who highlighted the department’s involvement in the community and its proactive leadership on community issues such as youth suicide and the opioid addiction crisis.
“The town of Enfield stands behind its Police Department,” Kaupin said.
During an exit interview detailing its findings to the department, assessment team leader Scott Cunningham, chief of police in Kernersville, North Carolina, said the department practiced “high-quality policing” and represented the profession in an “outstanding manner.”
He recommended that the department be re-accredited when it appears before a CALEA conference panel in November. “There are no significant issues, no concern about your status,” Cunningham said.
Regarding use of force, Cunningham said the department deals with it “excellently” and in certain respects even exceeds what is required, noting the way the department trains officers to use force and how well the department documents uses of force.
Among the documentation the department submits annually to CALEA is a use of force analysis. According to reports provided by the department, between 2011 and 2014 — the years in which the majority of the excessive force incidents cited in the pending lawsuits were said to have taken place —232 out of 7,373 custodial arrest situations — 3.1 percent — included a use of force.
Each year’s report, compiled by Capt. Fred Hall, broke down the methods of force the department used by category and listed the number of times each type of force was used. Over the four years, Hall identified certain patterns, including Worden’s involvement in 11 of the 78 use of force situations in 2012 and 12 of the 61 use of force situations in 2013.
In his reports for both years, Hall wrote that the frequency was due to the fact that Worden, being one of the department’s only on-call K-9 officers, was “routinely called to the most volatile situations in town and regionally.” In 2013, however, Hall wrote that Worden’s actions “have been and will continue to be reviewed by Deputy Chief (Gary) Collins and myself.”
Worden was the subject of 14 internal affairs investigations dating back to 2007. Sferrazza said that he had Collins review all of the investigations into Worden’s conduct to insure they were done properly, and it was determined that they had been.
In his 2015 summary — the most recent complete analysis the department has — Hall said that of the 1,725 custodial arrest situations the department was involved in, 39 or 2.2 percent involved force. He said that number represented approximately a 1 percent decrease over the previous year.
“The number of use of force incidents has remained consistently low over the past several years,” Hall wrote in the 2015 report. “Given the increase in violent crimes and our increasing interaction with the mental health population, I believe use of force incidents by members of the Enfield Police Department are minimal and illustrate the continued professionalism and discipline displayed by our officers on a daily basis.”
Spinella, who plans to file a lawsuit in the Demers case soon and has at least one more excessive force lawsuit to file against the department, said he wasn’t surprised by the CALEA assessors’ glowing review of the department.
“What do you expect them to say?” he said. “It’s a group that protects each other. They protect each other’s backs.”
Spinella said he’s secured a police practices expert, Florida-based Charles Drago, who has reviewed “hundreds” of complaints against the department where “no action was taken,” something Spinella called a “signpost” of a culture problem in the department.
“Drago looks at that and says ‘that’s a red flag,’ this is a dysfunctional department,” he said.
Though they couldn’t comment on the cases, Sferrazza and the town’s lawyer, James Tallberg of the Rocky Hill-based law firm Karsten & Tallberg LLC, shared a court transcript of a hearing held in June in the McAlmond case that alleges the use of excessive force.
In that case, Judge Jeffrey Meyer granted a defense motion to dismiss the claim that the town and the Police Department were culpable in the alleged use of force against McAlmond.
Meyer ruled that McAlmond hadn’t proven that the town or the Police Department acted indifferently in the face of a pattern of misconduct or that there was a problem with the agency’s policies or training of its officers.
Meyer found the “more than 30” use of force reports submitted by McAlmond’s lawyer to be deficient. While Meyer said that “it does not appear that the department’s documentation here was very substantial,” he wasn’t convinced that the sheer number of reports were indicative of improper use of force.
Meyer also noted complaints of misconduct against officers submitted by McAlmond, and though some contained complaints of “rude and discourteous behavior” — which the judge said is “certainly not flattering to the Police Department” — the department was not “deliberately indifferent with respect to these complaints.”
With regard to the complaints of “rude and discourteous behavior,” Sferrazza said the department conducts internal reviews of such accusations and the majority aren’t substantiated. If a complaint is substantiated, a counseling session or a reprimand is applied.
“We expect our officers to be professional at all times,” he said. “We don’t tolerate that behavior.”
Regarding Meyer’s ruling, Sferrazza took it as an indication that the Police Department and its policies would be exonerated in other cases.
“I understand this is one case, but I think it’s something that as we go forward, you’re going to see this with other cases,” he said.
Sferrazza took care to note that due to the ongoing legal process, he wasn’t at liberty to give the department’s full side of the cases being tried, and asked the public to “reserve judgments” until the process plays out. He was also unequivocal about his feelings concerning the department.
“I’m extremely proud to be a part of this department,” he said.