The Hartford Courant
A long-awaited investigative report released Thursday concludes New Britain police were justified in the 2017 shooting that ended with 20-year-old rapper Zoe “Gangstalicious” Dowdell dead and two black teenagers wounded.
The yearlong investigation by state police cleared all five officers who fired their guns, Fairfield State’s Attorney John Smriga wrote.
The shooting and virtual news blackout during the ensuing investigation led to several protest rallies by community activists, college students and Black Lives Matter members. Relatives of Dowdell and the two teenagers who were wounded — Caleb Tisdol, then 15, and Noah Young, then 18 — have condemned the shootings as racist.
On Thursday afternoon, community activist Cornell Lewis said the families were “extremely upset” by Smriga’s conclusions. Lewis said relatives of Young and Tisdol would hold a press conference at the shooting site on Saturday morning.
Smriga’s 25-page report and police cruiser dashboard camera footage show a chaotic scene at the shooting on the evening of Dec. 14, 2017. On Chapman Street, several police cars converge on the Toyota Paseo with Dowdell at the wheel. Amid a series of low-speed, back-and-forth crashes with the police cars, the Toyota rumbles up a snow-covered embankment and down a sidewalk as several New Britain police officers jump out of the way and open fire.
Tisdol, the front-seat passenger, raises his hands in surrender, but the Toyota keeps rolling and police “within a span of approximately 10 seconds” fire 28 shots — hitting the vehicle 13 times — before it crunches into a parked pickup, with Dowdell, of Bloomfield, dead and Tisdol and a second passenger, Noah Young, then 19, wounded inside.
Moments later, police at the chaotic scene curse and shout for a tourniquet and ambulances, while one of the wounded teens can be heard crying.
Smirga concluded that nobody in the Toyota shot at police, and – despite one detective’s account – the car never hit or dragged any officer. But all five officers who fired their guns were justified in using deadly force, Smirga wrote.
Detective Christopher Kiely and Officer Kyle Jones reasonably believed their lives were in danger, and Detective Marcin Ratajczak and officers Michael Slavin and Chad Nelson were justified because they reasonably believed they were stopping a fleeing violent felon who would endanger the community.
Since the shooting, all five have been on restricted duty awaiting the outcome of Smriga’s investigation. Police commanders will now do an administrative review to determine whether the officers followed policies.
“As we accept the findings of the independent investigation, we also continue to pray for the life that was lost in this tragic incident, the families of those affected, and our community,” Chief James Wardwell said in a statement.
“We will continue to pray for peace and healing in the coming weeks and months,” Mayor Erin Stewart said.
The report drew heavy criticism from the Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut, which has represented Dowdell’s father in a Freedom of Information case seeking records from the investigation. He called it “unconscionable and inhumane” that Shawn Dowdell had to wait for more than a year to see the video when Smriga’s office posted it Thursday.
“Because of police and prosecutors’ decisions to ignore and oppose the Dowdell family’s repeated requests for transparency, a grieving father is still in the dark about his son’s death at the hands of police,” Barrett said in a statement. “Prosecutors and police still have not released all of the evidence about what happened to Zoe Dowdell.”
The shooting came as New Britain police were fielding anti-robbery patrols to stop a string of violent carjackings. Police at that afternoon’s roll call were told to look for a Toyota Paseo with New Hampshire plates because it had been used in those crimes, Smriga said.
Officers saw Dowdell in a 1996 Paseo with New Hampshire plates and within minutes, a half-dozen marked and unmarked cars converged on it.
“Detective Ratajczak struck the suspect vehicle’s rear bumper in an apparent effort to prevent its escape,” Smriga wrote. “At this point, the suspect vehicle reversed in an apparent effort to turn around. As it executed this turn, it struck both unmarked vehicles and became stuck on a front lawn embankment … officers exited their vehicles with their weapons drawn and began to yell commands to the vehicle occupants.”
Smriga’s report says officers found a loaded .45 caliber handgun on the driver’s seat floor of the Toyota and an unloaded .25 caliber handgun. Narcotics and ammunition were found on Tisdol, Smirga said, and narcotics were found on Young.
Because city police used deadly force, state police detectives were called in to handle the investigation. New Britain immediately turned over the dashboard camera video from the cruisers, and troopers questioned officers who had been at the scene along with civilian witnesses.
As the investigation went on, state prosecutors refused to make public any of that evidence, including the video. Relatives of Young, of Bloomfield, and Tisdol, of Windsor Locks, said this fall that they’d still been given virtually no information about exactly what happened that night.
Police last year charged Tisdol and Young with multiple robberies. The two teenagers are both in jail awaiting trial. Their families have said both are innocent, and that police could have ended the confrontation without gunfire.
William Tisdol said last month that prosecutors showed him a segment of the dashboard camera video, and said it clearly showed his son had his hands up and Dowdell’s car was stopped.
Young, now 19, is facing charges of robbery, carjacking, possessing narcotics with intent to sell, illegally having a gun in a vehicle and several other counts, police said. Tisdol, now 16, faces eight robbery counts along with charges of assault, sexual assault, reckless endangerment and more, police said.
Smriga’s report notes that the day after the shooting, Vernon police learned of a social media video showing three black men in a car. It showed “an individual resembling Zoe Dowdell in the driver’s seat, an individual resembling Caleb Tisdol in the front passenger seat, and an individual resembling Noah Young in the backseat. Tisdol points a black handgun at the camera and continues to brandish it, while Young points a silver handgun at the camera,” Smriga wrote.
“The two weapons displayed are consistent with the appearance of those recovered after the incident, and the clothing worn by the three individuals is consistent with clothing seized from the scene,” he wrote.
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