Opinion: Bellwether for CT police accountability law

This image taken from dashboard camera video released by the Connecticut State Police, shows Trooper Brian North, after discharging his weapon and fatally shooting Mubarak Soulemane following a high-speed chase in January 2020.

This image taken from dashboard camera video released by the Connecticut State Police, shows Trooper Brian North, after discharging his weapon and fatally shooting Mubarak Soulemane following a high-speed chase in January 2020.

Associated Press

Sirens were wailing, making it difficult to hear as state troopers boxed in 19-year-old Mubarak Soulemane off Exit 43 of Interstate 95 in West Haven at 5:04 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2020.

Soulemane, who led police on a highway chase at speeds up to 100 mph after displaying a kitchen knife and stealing a car from a Lyft driver, sat “staring into space not doing anything,” according to a statement by Trooper Joshua Jackson.

Within about a minute, Soulemane would be shot dead.

“He was unconscious it looked like ... And then he came to when they broke the window,” said Trooper Brian North, as documented on his body camera.

Soulemane demonstrated extremely reckless and skillful driving in and out of three lanes during rush hour. He placed himself and many others in danger. As police followed, some motorists moved out of the way faster than others. Remarkably, there were no highway accidents during the chase. Soulemane crashed into a Chevrolet Blazer before troopers boxed him in on Campbell Avenue in West Haven.

The scene was chaotic. No officer was in charge, officially. Command and control? Forget about it.

From videos and statements compiled by Connecticut’s new inspector general, it is clear there was no discussion of de-escalation once police made the stop, secured the vehicle and had control. No one took a tactical pause. The moment was lost and then enveloped in a theater of the absurd beginning when West Haven Police Officer Robert Rappa smashed the passenger window of the Hyundai Sonata Soulemane had been driving, hitting it half a dozen times or more with a baton provided by Jackson. Rappa stated he broke the passenger window “to open a line of communication.”

North, his weapon drawn and pointed at Soulemane from outside the blocked driver’s side of the Hyundai, directed Jackson, on the passenger side, “Jackson, go to Taser.”

Soulemane grabbed the kitchen knife and pointed it toward the roof of the car. North, who had been positioned by the car for about half a minute, immediately fired seven shots. Four of the shots resulted in penetrating wounds of the chest. Twelve seconds later, North yelled, “Drop the knife.”

North was arrested April 19 and charged with first-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty. Many troopers believe he could win acquittal by asserting he was protecting other officers, none of whom entered the Hyundai. Soulemane would not have been able to stab anyone with the kitchen knife through the driver side window where he sat or out the shattered passenger side. This strategy seems like a shaky bet with an anticipated defense trial price tag upward of $1 million.

Declaring “The Job is Dead!” the Connecticut State Police Union organized a rally and a march to the New Milford Superior Court for North’s arraignment on May 3. Call it a show of support or a show of force, ignorance and intimidation, this strategy might also benefit from a tactical pause by new union leadership. This the same union which bamboozled the state into accepting a contract obliterating the public’s right to know and hiding dozens of alleged crimes amid hundreds of cases of wrongdoing, as delineated by a recent Hearst Connecticut Media series. Sunlight only bared this massive cover-up after a federal appeals court affirmed Connecticut’s 2020 police accountability law.

For the many troopers who serve and protect within the full meaning of those duties, the job is not dead. For scoundrels who cannot handle the truth and transparency, the job always was and always will be dead, whether they are on the job or gone.

Far too many prosecutors and judges are deferential to, and sometimes pushovers for, police. This is not the case with the state’s inspector general, also a deputy chief state’s attorney, Robert Devlin. Devlin is a former chief criminal court judge for the state and, as a federal prosecutor, was cited by the U.S. Attorney General for his work on a team that secured convictions of top New England mobsters. Some of those cases also involved dirty FBI agents. Most recently, Devlin served as a judge on Connecticut’s Appellate Court.

In his report on the shooting, Devlin noted there was minimal communication with Soulemane: “Jackson yelled twice for him to get out of the car — that was it.”

Devlin found that no officer faced an imminent threat and that North’s firing of seven shots was unreasonable and unjustified.

Among Devlin’s recommendations, consideration of a tactical pause: “The unsolicited and immediate action to shatter the window was imprudent. Instead of de-escalating the situation, that action escalated things dramatically. The shattering of the window caused Soulemane to wake up and pull out the knife, which, in turn, caused North to fire his weapon. Whether to shatter a window in a situation comparable to the present case should be the product of careful deliberation.”

Connecticut is lucky to have Devlin as inspector general. The path of this case likely will provide an indication of the viability of burgeoning police accountability in the state.

Andy Thibault teaches news reporting and communication at the University of New Haven. He covered the Boston Marathon bombing trial for the NBC News Investigative Unit, was a research consultant for the HBO series “Allen v Farrow” and was credited with helping to free a woman unjustly imprisoned for first-degree murder in 2013. The Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information cited Thibault in 2014 with the Stephen A. Collins Memorial Freedom of Information Award for “his many contributions to the cause of open and accountable government and a free and vigorous press in Connecticut.”