Hartford police sergeant punching woman in custody was 'not excessive,' internal probe finds

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Hartford Police Department, in Hartford, Conn. Jan. 24, 2023.
Hartford Police Department, in Hartford, Conn. Jan. 24, 2023.Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

HARTFORD — An internal affairs investigation into a city police sergeant who punched a woman while she was in custody has found his actions were "not excessive," according to a report obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

Nearly two years after Hartford Police Sgt. James Guzie was charged with misdemeanor assault, the case has spawned conflicting reports in the police department and a lawsuit against the city.

Soon after the March 2021 incident, Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody deemed Guzie's actions were "simply unacceptable."

However, in an internal affairs report dated Nov. 16, 2022, Hartford Police Lt. Michael Anderson determined Guzie was "objectively reasonable" when he struck Felicia Jenkins after she allegedly spit at him while being processed at the police station.

"Sgt. Guzie's actions were objectively reasonable with the situation presented to him," Anderson wrote in the report. "He was presented with a subject who had already displayed that when presented with an opportunity, she had the ability and intent to cause harm to officers. The use of a single strike to the face of Jenkins achieved his lawful purpose of gaining control of an irate and violent subject. At no time did Sgt. Guzie display any aggression toward Jenkins by words or actions prior to her spitting in his face."

Lt. Brian Bowsza, director of internal affairs, said during last week's Civilian Police Review Board meeting that he asked Anderson to conduct the administrative investigation into Guzie.

After the incident, Hartford police initiated two investigations into Guzie, according to Lt. Aaron Boisvert, a spokesperson for the department. The first, a criminal investigation, resulted in the arrest warrant for Guzie. The second, the administrative investigation conducted by Anderson, was put on hold while the legal process played out.

"The investigations are separate and distinct, apply two different burdens of proof (probable cause for arrest and proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction in the criminal investigation and preponderance of the evidence in the administrative investigation) and look into different elements of individuals actions (criminal statute violations in criminal and policy violations in the administrative)," Boisvert wrote in an email.

Guzie's criminal case has been sealed and may indicate he has applied for a court-authorized accelerated rehabilitation program that would dismiss the assault charge if successfully completed. Guzie could not be reached for comment.

Jenkins filed a lawsuit in October against the department, Guzie, Thody, unnamed police officers and the City of Hartford, seeking damages and alleging she was left in a cell the entire night after the incident without medical attention. Attorney Robert S. Jackson, who is representing Jenkins, said his client has been in "therapy and treatment for quite some time" related to the incident.

"Sgt. Guzie’s punch was so violent that despite being held by two officers, the plaintiff fell violently to the floor, after which he engaged in 'mushing' her face violently to the floor," an amended complaint reads. "Sgt. Guzie then dragged the plaintiff into a holding cell as she was lying on the floor."

The incident happened in March 2021, when Jenkins was taken into custody after police said they received a report of a woman trying to get inside a house where she hadn't lived for months.

As she was being processed, Jenkins cursed at several officers, according to body-worn camera footage from the incident. In the footage, Jenkins is seen being processed by officers Shameal Samuels, Kelly Baerga and Shane Mebane. The situation escalated as Jenkins argued with Officer Paul Cohen, who was sitting behind a desk and whose camera recorded the incident.

Jenkins then appeared to make a comment, calling Cohen and Guzie, “white Trump supporters.” According to the footage, Jenkins appeared to spit in the direction of Guzie. It’s unclear in the footage whether Jenkins’ spit hit Guzie.

Guzie reacted immediately and the video shows him lunging at Jenkins. He then punched her in the face with a closed fist, an internal affairs investigation said. The video footage then cuts off.

The response at the time from the police department was swift. Guzie was charged with misdemeanor assault and Thody released a statement condemning his sergeant's actions.

“The officer should never have reacted the way he did and it’s simply unacceptable," Thody said.

Hartford's Civilian Police Review Board conducted its own investigation in response to an anonymous complaint it received in November. 

The CPRB voted last week to sustain several allegations against Guzie, including neglect of duty, violation of code of conduct and excessive force.

The board also sustained allegations of filing a false report and neglect of duty against Anderson after Hartford Inspector General Liam Brennan raised concerns about the internal investigation, calling the report "seriously disconcerting."

"What concerns me about Lt. Anderson's report is that Anderson does not mention that Jenkins was restrained by three officers," Brennan said at the CPRB meeting. "He does not mention that Guzie pushes past Samuels to get to Jenkins, does not talk about how Baerga tried to block Guzie, or that Guzie dragged Jenkins across the floor, or that Baerga and Mebane were pleading with Guzie to stop. None of this is in that report at all. Reading that report and watching the video seem like two completely different things to me."

Thody will review Anderson's report and the CPRB's ruling before deciding on potential discipline, Boisvert said.

Guzie is still on administrative leave pending the outcome of his criminal case and internal investigation, Boisvert said.

"As soon as this incident was reviewed by the leadership of the Hartford Police Department, they immediately referred it to the state prosecutor's office for external review, even as internal affairs conducted their investigation," Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in a statement. "We've instituted some of the strongest police reforms and oversight of anywhere in the state, and the appropriate process is underway. Until the administrative investigation is complete, Sgt. Guzie remains on administrative leave.’

Jonah.Dylan@hearstmediact.com, @TheJonahDylan