New Haven sent a signal by firing officers who paralyzed Randy Cox — with different interpretations of what that signal is.
Police Chief Karl Jacobson said he was sending a message about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable behavior when he recommended that the Board of Police Commissioners fire four officers who participated in dragging Cox from a prisoner transport van into the lock-up and ignoring requests for medical help on Juneteenth 2022. The commissioners seconded that message when they voted June 7 to fire Officer Jocelyn Lavandier and Officer Luis Rivera for their roles in the incident; a vote on two other officers is scheduled for June 28. (A fifth officer has retired.)
Mayor Justin Elicker delivered a similar message when he announced Friday that the city has agreed to settle a civil suit by Cox for a record $45 million.
New Haven’s police union took a different message from the firings.
Elm City Local Police Union’s officers and executive board issued a letter following the firings blasting the chief and the commissioners.
“[T]he cop-haters are still not satisfied, but it will be too late. The NHPD will remain directionless and frozen, and Chief Jacobson and his administration will never be able to bring it back, especially with words like ‘We got your back,” Union President Florencio Cotto and the other officers and board members wrote.
“The Union is urging all members to proceed with the utmost caution in this post Police Accountability reality. A reality where they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job … We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by unnecessarily jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
Asked about the union statement, Jacobson said he does “everything possible” to support his officers by “giving them the tools they need, from continuing to put cameras in to getting stop sticks.” He noted the department recently obtained “external vest carriers” so their belts won’t jam.
The chief said it’s also important to give officers clear guidance about what kind of conduct will get them in trouble. He said he did that with his disciplinary recommendation.
“I do have their backs. What you can’t do — you can’t treat the community poorly.”
Two criminal justice analysts — retired Assistant Chief John Velleca, who teaches criminal justice at Albertus College, and Yale Law School Law & Racial Justice Center Executive Director Kayla Vinson — supported the firings and criticized the union statement in a conversation Tuesday on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
“We should take the the union at their word. They are telling us that in order to do their job, people need to end up paralyzed. And we should ask ourselves: OK. Is that who we want to rely on for community safety?” Vinson said.
“What I’m hearing the union say is that they don’t think the officers should have been fired because they were doing their job. If that’s what they think their job is, then we have really failed collectively to create any form of community safety that actually keeps us safe and free from harm.”
Velleca said that no cop who sees the body camera video of the Cox case can honestly argue that the conduct was acceptable.
“Those are fireable offenses. I’m sorry if my brothers and sisters in the union don’t believe that. But the truth is the truth. And reality is the reality. These are not days when we have to rely on somebody’s perception of what happened anymore. We have a video,” Velleca said.