Videos of fatal Wethersfield police shooting released
Nearly two weeks since a Wethersfield police officer shot an 18-year-old driver after a traffic stop, the chief state’s attorney’s office released dashcam footage and surveillance video on Friday that show the incident that led to the man’s death.
The driver, Anthony Jose “Chulo” Vega Cruz, died two days after the April 20 shooting on Silas Deane Highway. A female passenger in the car was uninjured. Family members and protesters took to the streets after his death, chanting “Justice For Chulo” and calling on investigators to release the footage. On Friday, the state did just that.
The videos show the chase involved two police vehicles and Vega Cruz’s car. They show one of the officers as he exited his car on foot, placed himself — gun drawn — in front of Vega Cruz’s vehicle as it was in motion, and fired into the front windshield.
Shortly after the release of the videos, lawyers representing Vega Cruz’s family demanded that prosecutors bring criminal charges against the officer who shot him.
“The video footage released today by the State’s Attorney’s office shows what we already knew: This officer acted recklessly when he murdered Chulo, an unarmed teenager with his girlfriend, during a traffic stop,” attorneys Benjamin Crump and Michael Jefferson said in a statement. “We are devastated, enraged, and continue to demand justice for their son and brother. The video tells the story, and now, the officer must pay for his actions.”
The Connecticut State Police Central District Major Crime Squad is investigating the incident.
“This investigation is in its early stages and I am unable to state at this time how long it will take to complete,” said Hartford State’s Attorney Gail P. Hardy. “Connecticut State Police continue to gather Wethersfield Police Department policies, evidence and to interview witnesses. I reiterate that this will be a thorough and comprehensive investigation to allow me to determine whether the use of force resulting in the death of Anthony Vega Cruz was justified under the applicable law.”
The initial police account of the shooting went like this: It was about 6 p.m. on a Saturday when two Wethersfield police officers tried to pull Vega Cruz over. After the incident, Wethersfield police Chief James Cetran explained the stop to a TV reporter, saying that “the plates did not match the car … The officer thought it was a stolen car.”
It is not immediately clear what led to that determination.
State police said at the time that Vega Cruz’s car and a police car eventually collided. An officer got out of his car and “the suspect’s vehicle drove towards that officer,” state police said on April 21. That officer, later identified as Layau Eulizier Jr., then shot Vega Cruz and fatally wounded him. Vega Cruz’s family says he was shot twice in the head.
Friday’s video release gives more context. The footage and surveillance videos show it was raining when Peter Salvatore, the Wethersfield officer who initiated the traffic stop, pulled Vega Cruz over. Both cars came to a complete stop. After about 30 seconds, Salvatore approached the stopped car on foot. That’s when Vega Cruz began to drive away, leading to a pursuit on Silas Deane Highway.
Down the road, Eulizier joined the pursuit, making a U-turn to continue after Vega Cruz’s car, which appeared to spin out of control onto the side of the highway.
Eulizier’s police SUV then rammed into Vega Cruz’s car head-on. Eulizier got out of his vehicle with his gun drawn, then ran towards Vega Cruz’s car as it reversed back onto Silas Deane Highway. Eulizier appeared to shout “show me your hands” three times, though this has not been confirmed by police.
Salvatore’s SUV then arrived, nearly colliding with Vega Cruz’s car. Seconds later, Salvatore hit Vega Cruz’s car on the driver’s side.
As the vehicle began to pull away, Eulizier positioned himself in front of Vega Cruz’s car, then fired his gun multiple times into the front windshield. The car came to a complete stop. Vega Cruz’s passenger opened her door, as the car again began to drive forward. Both officers approached the vehicle on foot with guns drawn, and the car came to a stop. The passenger — who was not shot — stepped out, hands in the air, and sat on the ground.
“The Video Speaks For Itself”
The Wethersfield Police Department said this week that Eulizier, known as “Junior,” had been hired in August 2018 and did not have a disciplinary history on his record. Neither did Salvatore, who joined the department in 2013.
Cetran, the police chief, said Friday afternoon that attorneys have advised him not to speak about the investigation.
“The video speaks for itself,” said Cetran, who also is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. “I’m glad for the transparency.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, spoke to Connecticut Public Radio after he watched the videos. Giacalone believes a police supervisor could have intervened to call off the pursuit of Vega Cruz’s vehicle before it escalated on a busy highway.
While the officer may have discretion to pursue someone that is evading law enforcement, Giacalone said it’s the supervisor that has the authority to decide whether a chase continues.
As for the police shooting, “the rule in New York City is you don’t fire at a moving vehicle unless somebody is using [a weapon] other than the vehicle itself to do something,” Giacalone said. “So if the person is shooting at you from the car, you shoot at it.”
State Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat from New Haven, has called for legislation that would prohibit police officers in Connecticut from shooting at moving cars except in extreme cases. A proposed bill in 2017 failed after opposition from law enforcement advocates, including the police union.
Porter has also been outspoken about the role of racial profiling in some traffic stops.
“Black and brown people are seen a certain way in this country and treated a certain way in this country,” she said earlier this week. “And it has become tolerable.”
In the Wethersfield case, Vega Cruz was Hispanic. Eulizier, the officer who shot him, is black.
“This is not about color,” Porter said. “This is about culture, the culture of the police department… what’s taught and what’s tolerated.”
Racial Disparities In Traffic Stops
On Friday, the footage of the police chase and shooting stirred outrage and sadness among “Justice For Chulo” activists and friends. They have called for police accountability.
“The young man is in the car — a gun is being pointed at him,” said Cornell Lewis, who has helped organize the protests. Lewis said it wasn’t a good move for Vega Cruz to flee the officers, but that he didn’t deserve to get shot.
“Naturally, either reflexes or fear take over and you do something stupid,” Lewis said. “But doing something stupid like that is no reason to have an officer shoot point-blank at the man.”
Andre Gaston Jr., 21, was classmates with Vega Cruz at Hartford Public High School. Gaston said he started watching the footage Friday, then “I got upset so I just cut it off. … I just want justice for my boy because he ain’t deserve that at all.”
But while police initially said “the suspect’s vehicle drove towards that officer,” Gaston thinks the video shows something different. He said it “clearly shows you that the cop jumped in the way” and that he could have done something else to stop the car rather than shooting at his friend.
Speaking more generally, Gaston said he has noticed a pattern whenever police officers in the area have pulled over his friends or him.
“Any time I got into an interaction with police — vehicle doesn’t even have to be involved — guns were out,” said Gatson, standing on the same Hartford block where his friend “Chulo” grew up as a kid. “We never carried any weapons, we never had any drugs on us, whatever the situation was, guns were pulled out on us already.”
Melvin Medina of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut said it’s a “rational fear” for young people of color to believe their lives are in danger when interacting with police. He said the police shooting in Wethersfield reinforces that fear.
“There are a few moments in that very short — I think around 60-to-90 seconds — of video in which officers chose to escalate a situation rather than de-escalate,” Medina said Friday, “and that to me is what jumps out the most.”
The ACLU of Connecticut also pointed to the Wethersfield Police Department’s reputation of pulling over people of color at a higher rate than white motorists.
Since 2015, the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project (CTPR3) has analyzed traffic stops from 107 police departments in the state. Statewide, Wethersfield is the only department that has been identified each year as an outlier for significant racial disparities, said Ken Barone, a project manager with CTRP3.
In 2018, the data showed that half of Wethersfield police department’s 3,151 stops were of Hispanic and black drivers — despite a town population that is about 85 percent white. Among the overall stops, 37 percent were along Silas Deane Highway.
“There has been a consistent message from the department and the chief in particular,” Barone said, “that racial disparities don’t exist — that low-level, equipment-related motor vehicle enforcement is good and effective and that any of the unintended consequences of that, vis-à-vis racial disparities, is just the way the world works.”
The Wethersfield police chief pushed back on the data in 2017, arguing that the analysis does not account for the significant Hispanic population in Hartford’s South End, which borders Wethersfield.
“There are a lot of minorities in the South End of Hartford who have to drive into Wethersfield to do their grocery shopping,” Cetran said in a story reported by CT News Junkie.
Kamora Herrington, a community activist in Hartford, was one of the speakers at a “Justice For Chulo” rally in front of the Wethersfield Police Department last week. On Friday, she said Wethersfield feels like an unwelcoming place for people of color like herself.
“Wethersfield is right next to door to Hartford,” Herrington said. “If I’ve got to go to Wethersfield for anything, I pay attention. I make sure, you know, is my car all set? … We know that if we cross the border, we are probably going to be stopped. We are going to be stopped as a way to let us know that we don’t belong there.”
Protesters said they plan to continue demonstrating. Medina said the ACLU of Connecticut will be joining “Justice For Chulo” activists on the ground, including at an upcoming Wethersfield town council meeting.
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