Mercy Quaye: More accountability needed in police shootings
Police and teenage drivers have a lot in common — they both spend a lot of time behind the wheel and they both have to return the car by curfew. But here’s a notable difference: If one gets too many violations inside a year, they’re punitively required to go to a retraining class — a lesson I learned at 19. Officers are apparently subject to far less accountability, as evidenced by Alex Relyea, a Danbury police officer, who had the opportunity to nearly duplicate his actions after gunning down a man with a knife fewer than seven months ago.
I’ve mulled through the necessary nuance, and I still can’t imagine how Relyea could be allowed back on active duty before authorities had ruled on whether the fatal shooting of 45-year-old Paul Arbitelle Dec. 29 was justified. On Friday a top prosecutor released his report determining Relyea’s actions were reasonable.
I find these incidents an ideal test case for me to assess my opinions on how much accountability police officers should have. Ideal because I’m forced to challenge how unbiased my call for an end to police brutality is through the details of this case.
When Arbitelle died, there weren’t any protests or hashtags in his honor. There weren’t any columns dedicated to how his life mattered or how good of a person he was. That’s likely because as a known white supremacist with swastika tattoos and a history of aggression toward black people and officers, I suspect mustering empathy was difficult for most people against police brutality.
But while the context, in this case, is notably different from the shots heard around the world that killed unarmed men such as Terrence Crutcher, Philando Castile, or 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the issue is the same. And since the issue of too-frequent excessive force remains the threading factor, the call for an aggressive solution remains.
You won’t hear me assert that Arbitelle was the upstanding citizen that Castile was, but that doesn’t actually matter. Arbitelle’s right to due process was similarly stolen when Relyea discharged his firearm. I’ve previously acknowledged the fear-inducing career choice officers have made, and since Arbitelle was armed with a knife, I think immediate action on Relyea’s part may have been warranted.
But when faced with two trained and reportedly decorated officers armed with Tasers and guns, it’s obvious that the reportedly drunk Arbitelle was (literally) outgunned and no match for the two. As such, I believe Relyea did not have to use fatal force in lieu of disarming and subduing him.
After I was forced to go to driver’s retraining, I was warned that any moving violation received within two to three years would result in more punitive measures including, but not limited to, having my licensed revoked. This has kept me from texting and driving ever since. Conversely, Relyea had a paid leave of absence for just three months and was able to return to the streets armed, before the final report. Now here we are, deja vu all over again, with Relyea under fire for shooting 31-year-old Aaron Bouffard, who had two knives, in the pelvis, thigh, and finger July 3.
This because we refuse to reform police departments, practices, and policies that seldom hold officers accountable for their actions.
Every conversation about police brutality should start and end with accountability and reform. And a new law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont last week might be the best way to start doing just that.
The bill, SB 380, passed the House within the final hours of legislative session on June 5 after a three-hour debate in which Republican leadership argued that the requirement would impact police officers who faced life and death situations. Candidly, I think this is a prime example of conservative politics that are divorced from logic.
People in communities all over the country have diminishing levels of trust for police officers, transparency and overall accountability for police departments. Pivotal to the success of any system is public trust in the fair, safe, and transparent operation of that system. Whether we’re talking about cameras or public services, without public trust the failure is imminent.
That’s why legislation is required.
The law goes into effect in the fall and requires police departments to release any body or dash camera footage of a deadly police-involved shooting within 48 hours of the officers involved viewing the video or within 96 hours of the incident, whichever comes first.
It also removes the responsibility of oversight from the offending department and requires the Chief State’s Attorney to assign non-lethal force investigations to another jurisdiction’s state’s attorney, similar to the practice already used for assigning lethal-force investigations.
I think we basically need to demolish the entire system and build something that is mutually beneficial to public servants and the community. Until ardent police supporters can have that conversation, this is a viable start.
I haven’t had a moving violation in almost a decade. Mostly because I knew revoking my license was a very possible outcome for infractions behind the wheel. Police, on the other hand, are allowed to limitlessly repeat-offend and return to duty after a brief paid vacation. But I guess that’s what happens when partisan politics allow for a world where teenagers are more accountable for protecting lives than armed officers hired and trained to do so.
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.