Cop of the Week

by Paul Bass | November 13, 2005 12:08 PM | | Comments (3)

Officer Bertram Etienne used his street smarts to help get three illegal guns off the street over the past three months.

His instincts proved on target during the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 24 when he saw a man and a woman parked on a corner of Ferry Street in the Fair Haven neighborhood. Etienne, who is 28 and joined the New Haven force four years ago, has patrolled Fair Haven on the midnight-to-8 shift for about six months.

Etienne pulled his car behind the car parked on Ferry. He sat for a while watching the occupants.

“The way they parked, it didn’t seem they had a legitimate reason to be there,” he recalled in an interview in the police station cafeteria. They kept their engine idling. They weren’t parked in front of a house. They “kept looking around like they were hiding something.”

Eventually the man, who was behind the wheel, drove the car away, around Fair Haven streets. Etienne followed.

On Middletown Avenue, Etienne decided to pull them over. “He was just driving around for no purpose. That’s not normal.” Etienne radioed for back-up.

He needed a pretext to stop them. He noticed minor motor-vehicle violations on the car: A gold-plated chain partially obscured the bottom of the back license plate. A trinket hung from the rear-view mirror. His real concern wasn’t the violations. (His own Ford Wrangler has a mirror-hanging, too.) He wanted to see what the people were up to.

Using a loudspeaker, Etienne asked the man turn off the car, put the keys on the roof. He asked to see the man’s license and registration and insurance card. No insurance card.

“Whose car is it?” The man said it belonged to his girlfriend. He said he was giving a ride to his friend’s mother. The story sounded weak.

“He was stuttering, breathing heavy. He was looking nervous. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Two other officers had arrived on the scene by then. Etienne asked one of them, Omara Nieves, to pat down the female passenger. Nieves found a crack pipe.

Meanwhile, the male driver “was still looking very, very nervous. Most people when they get stopped,” Etienne said, “if nothing’s wrong, they might get upset. But they don’t act nervous.” Etienne asked him to step outside the car. He obliged, and started scouting different directions “as if he was looking for an escape route.”

Etienne grabbed him. The man started running, tried to break free. The third officer on the scene, Jason Weted, helped Etienne try to hold him. The man kept squirming, wiggling. He reached for his waistband, according to Etienne.

“He has a gun! He has a gun!” Officer Nieves called out. She managed to free the gun from his hand. The man grabbed a nearby fence to keep his balance. Weted struck one of the hands with a baton; the hand came free. The three officers wrestled the man to the ground. He put up a fight. Finally, after a warning, according to Etienne, Weted shot a burst of pepper spray at the man, and the officers handcuffed him. He was charged with three counts of interfering and series of gun charges.

Including theft. It turned out that the gun —- a Glock 9 mm. with 18 bullets —- belonged to a New Haven cop. Someone had stolen it.

During the struggle, Etienne didn’t have time to ponder the possibility that the man could shoot him. “My main focus was to neutralize the situation,” he said. Afterwards, “I was just happy all of us were safe. I couldn’t have done it by myself. It was a group effort.”

Gunning for Guns

Both federal and local authorities have identified the proliferation of illegal guns as a key factor in New Haven’s upticking street crime. They have put an emphasis on recovering those guns. Officer Robert Fumiatti, who keeps track of gun cases, nominated Bertram Etienne for the department’s “officer of the month” for November because of his “instrumental” role in three of those recent successful recaptures.

Etienne doesn’t consider himself a cop of the month. He doesn’t consider himself worthy of New Haven Independent “Cop of the Week.” (He came to the scene of Steve McMorris, who rescued three people from a fire at Three Judges Motel last Friday by climbing a pole. That’s a “cop of the week,” Etienne said.)

Getting guns off the street is always, as in the Ferry Street case, “a group effort,” said the soft-spoken Etienne.

It certainly was in the other two recent cases in which he took part. In one case, he spotted the car that turned out to belong to young men who were reported to be carrying weapons. He chased the car from Fair Haven to the Hill, where the driver unwittingly drove into a parking lot and gave up when he couldn’t escape. Police found an illegally owned gun under the front seat.

In the other case, Etienne was driving a fellow officer to the police station when he heard a report over the radio about a car whose driver who’d just shot a gun outside the downtown Gotham Citi nightclub. He spotted a car he thought might fit the vague description. He stopped the car; the driver looked nervous. “It’s just a look people have on their face, the way they talk to you,” he said. “You know something’s not right.”

Etienne’s companion did a sweep of the car. In the glover compartment he found a revolver for which the passengers had no permit.

“Instincts” vs. Racial Profiling

Etienne does acknowledge that his instincts helped him in these cases. “It comes with the job. The more you do things, the more you deal with people, you get a sense of how people act in certain situation.” Also, like other Independent Cops of the Week (click here and here for examples), Etienne was born with a badge in his DNA. His grandfather was an assistant police chief in Trinidad. His father was a lieutenant on the police force in Hartford, where Etienne grew up.

It can be a fine line between an officer’s instincts and an officer’s bias — as Etienne has found at the other end of the transaction in suburban Hartford. White cops have pulled him over several times while he was off-duty and driving his own car. They said it’s because his windows are tinted (barely) and he lacked a tint compliance sticker.

He didn’t buy their explanation. He knows from personal experience that the officers were using a pretext.

“I live in Newington now. I was living in Wethersfield before that,” said Etienne, who’s black. “I don’t mind if an officer stops me. But when it’s repeatedly, and you know I live in town, and you know I’m an officer — the times I got stopped, it didn’t seem right. They looked at me and stopped me.”

How’s that different from when he or any other cop makes a judgment that someone looks suspicious, based on instinct?

“Instinct and racial profiling are two different things,” Etienne said. A cop makes a judgment based on a wide range of attitudes and experiences on the beat. That’s legit. And that’s different from marking a person because of race, Etienne said. If a white cop has anti-black prejudices, “if that’s how you live your life, that’s how you do your job. That’s not OK.”

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Posted by: Esbe [TypeKey Profile Page] | November 13, 2005 11:29 PM

This article does a great job of highlighting a particular issue. Cops pull folks over all the time for semi-bogus vehicle violations; they are looking for something more serious. In the hands of a cop like this one, most of us are probably happy about it. But in the hands of a racist or lazy cop, the same techniques would really offend us. On balance, I think this just argues for high-quality cops, rather than stricter rules on vehicle stops.

Posted by: Paul | November 15, 2005 10:57 AM

I went to High School in Hartford with Officer Etienne, in fact we played on the same football squad. He has always been a leader. I was proud to hear of his efforts to make New Haven streets safe. Go Bulldogs!

Posted by: Michelle | November 20, 2005 12:05 PM

Ditto what ESBE wrote.
This article also demonstrates the value of on-line media outlets. By virtue of lower overhead costs and a more fluid format, on-line publishers can afford to have reporters researching and writing such meaningful features. I lament that local print & broadcast media can no longer afford (or choose?) to do the same.
A big challenge which remains: improving literacy rates and working on behalf of those who lack on-line access so that the broader community can be in on such public discussion.

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