Out-Of-Town Jury Picked For Cop Misconduct Trial

Markeshia Ricks & Christopher Peak Phots Eight people who live outside New Haven and say they have never encountered problems with police will decide whether a New Haven cop and his supervisor violated an Edgewood man’s Fourth Amendment rights “against unreasonable search and seizure” in an arrest last year.

The jurors, selected Thursday afternoon, will hear a civil suit in New Haven’s federal courthouse in trial starting Friday. Dennis Serfilippi, a 54-year-old consultant for tech companies, claims in the suit that he was falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted after a minor traffic infraction exploded into an arrest.

On Jan. 11, 2016, Serfilippi walked into the roadway in front of his Edgewood home, where a construction crew was working, to help his mother pull out of the driveway. On his way back to the house, Serfilippi directed a comment toward Daniel Conklin, a New Haven police officer since 2012 who was working extra-duty directing traffic. The situation escalated to a verbal altercation, a door slammed on Conklin’s finger, a seized cell phone that disappeared and an eventual arrest.

Serfilippi filed a federal lawsuit in December 2016, naming Conklin and his supervisor, Sgt. Jason Rentkowicz, as defendants. Conklin, meanwhile, was promoted to detective despite a record of having violated citizens’ rights. (Read more about Serfilippi’s suit and Conklin’s side of the story here.)

Cop Buddies On Jury

The five women and three men, at least seven of whom are white, were hand-picked Thursday from a pool of 80 jurors after an exhaustive day of questioning.

In a process known as voir dire, Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer questioned the potential jurors’ views on a number of topics.

“What’s the purpose of jury selection?” he asked. “To find a truly fair and impartial jury. I’ll ask a whole blow of questions. They’re not meant to pry into anybody’s past business, but to make a determination of one’s fitness to serve on the jury.”

Among the questions: Did anyone recognize any familiar faces in the jury box? (Ten knew each other.) Was anyone a compulsive Googler, who’d have difficulty avoiding news stories about the cases they were poised to decide? Did anyone disagree that Americans deserve the advantage of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights? Did anyone feel they’d been falsely arrested or wrongfully prosecuted? Would anyone have difficulty questioning law enforcement’s motives on the witness stand? Was everyone willing to follow the law, even if they disagreed with it?

Meyer asked them to examine their implicit biases —  “any impressions and assumptions, fears and stereotypes” that people might “unconsciously act on,” even though they “consciously abhor them”  —  that lurked in their thinking. Every juror agreed to recognize the possibility of bias and resist it.

The interrogation, which went on for six hours, helped the lawyers —  Joseph Merly, an associate attorney at John R. Williams and Associates representing Serfilippi; and Michael Wolak, a city assistant corporation counsel representing the cops —  decide who among the 80 citizens would give their clients the most favorable reading of the evidence.

Both attorneys had a tougher time selecting their ideal panel, because they chose from the leftovers after 21 jurors were impaneled in two other cases first, a criminal trial for an accused heroin dealer from Bridgeport and a civil trial of two Hamden cops who used a stun-gun on a man that subsequently had a seizure.

In the end, they picked a group who’d had a range of experiences with the criminal justice system:

• a female Edible Arrangements employee from Milford who’s close friends with a local cop and knows two relatives who’ve been busted on drug possession charges.
• a male event planner from North Haven who was the victim of an assault three decades ago.
• a retired female factory-worker from Milford whose ex-husband had once inappropriately touched a minor.
• a male financier from Stamford whose cousin was arrested for heroin possession.
• a female high school secretary from Norwich who’s good buddies with the school’s security team, which is staffed by 14 former cops.
• a semi-retired male from Clinton who drives limousines part-time.
• a female court reporter from Colchester who transcribes criminal cases in New London’s courthouse.
• a retired female from East Haddam who used to work for an insurance company.

City “Lost” Cellphone With Video Footage

Serfilippi video-recorded his interaction with then-Officer Conklin the day of his arrest on his cellphone. But the cops seized his cellphone. Then the city informed Serfilippi’s counsel that the cellphone has mysteriously disappeared. So the jury will never be able to view the direct video of the incident. (The city has never announced any regret or disciplinary action for the disappearance of the camera.)

It will be able to watch a less-definitive video account. At trial, the panel will be asked to review approximately 45 minutes of footage, shot by a Nest home-security camera that Serfilippi kept in his front window, that recorded video of the initial traffic incident on Elm Street and audio of the subsequent exchanges with the officers. This video does not show Conklin and his supervisor interacting with Serfilippi. It does show some scenes of the original traffic situation that prompted the incident, and it records the participants’ voices once the dispute began.

Click above to watch this video footage. Some sounds are muted, since the camera was inside the house; near the end of the video, background noise from a television obscures the sounds of Serfilippi’s arrest.

Both sides argued that the footage will prove their case.

“The main evidence is the video. We have different points of view on it,” said Wolak, the city lawyer.

According to Serfilippi’s complaint, here’s what he argues that the video details:

Serfilippi’s “aged mother” needed to get out of her driveway, but the way was blocked by construction vehicles. Meanwhile, Conklin “occupied himself socializing with the construction crew and ignor[ed] the needs of motorists.”

After watching “for a long period of time” while his mom asked for help and while Conklin “completely ignored the situation,” Serfilippi “stepped into the street and helped his mother get her car out of the driveway and then returned to his house.”

Having “observed this,” Conklin “became enraged and began pounding his fist” on Serfilippi’s front door, “demanding that [he] step onto the porch.” Serfilippi instructed Conklin to “get off his property.”

“Fear[ing] for his safety,” Serfilippi dialed 911 to request a police supervisor. The supervisor, Sgt. Rentkowicz, arrived and instead of “protecting” him, helped arrest him. Conklin finally put Sefilippi in cuffs.

Conklin argued that Serfilippi jeopardized public safety, interfering with his work directing traffic and with the work of the construction crew. He stated that Serfilippi slammed a door on his finger and injured it. (His written account does not mention the seizure or loss of the cellphone; the city subsequently admitted it couldn’t account for the phone in a legal filing.)

The security video includes efforts by Rentkowicz to defuse the situation when he arrived on the scene.

In a pretrial hearing after jurors went home Thursday evening, Merly, Serfilippi’s attorney, said he is leaning toward shifting his case’s emphasis away from wrongful arrest to malicious prosecution.

Merly also agreed not to invoke the “blue wall of silence,” a phrase that Wolak protested would prejudice the jury, unless the attorneys speak with Judge Meyer first. Meyer commented, “It seems like you could otherwise impeach the witnesses by suggesting self-interest, without invoking an overarching code of silence among all police officers.” But he told Merly he’d hear arguments at sidebar, if the evidence leads in that direction.

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posted by: Patricia Kane on September 8, 2017  9:32am

Since we don’t have a Civilian Review Board in place, and since Internal Affairs is viewed as a rubber stamp for the police, possibly because of NHPD union contract provisions that make discipline harder, and since the Board of Police Commissioners are not on record for any strong actions re: citizen complaints, more people will bring suit and more attorneys will take these cases because they can be a big pay day.
    Just the facts described in this article illustrate how ludicrous it is for the City to let a case like this go to trial.
    How many millions in decisions against the police or in settlement will New Haven accept before better leadership and a change in the system are put in place?

posted by: Bohica on September 8, 2017  11:39am

He probably said what I would have wanted to say to the cop; “Get off your lazy ass and do your job.” How many times have you driven by a construction crew and the cop is either staring down at the hole or wandering around like a bystander.

posted by: TheGhostOfRogerSherman on September 8, 2017  12:46pm

“a seized cell phone that disappeared”, “the city informed Serfilippi’s counsel that the cellphone has mysteriously disappeared”.

Are these actual statements by the police department? If the city is saying that the cell phone disappeared, then they are admitting that there is documentation that the phone was seized in the first place. That could be in the form of it being mentioned as evidence in a police report or as personal property when he was processed at Union Ave.

Or is this poor journalism?

[Ed.: The city stated in a brief filed in this case that it cannot account for the whereabouts of the phone.]

posted by: HhE on September 8, 2017  3:02pm

Oh good, a bunch of our tax dollars are going to cover incompetence of officials, elected and not.

posted by: victoria on September 9, 2017  2:09am

I am surprised that after so many complains to internal affairs from citizens against Detective Conklin that he was promoted to detective.  I know for a fact that he is an arrogant, unprofessional individual that lacks sensitivity towards the citizens of New Haven.
He is an embarrassment to the New Haven police dept and instead of promoting him he should be given intense lessons on sensitivity and respect for others.

posted by: alphabravocharlie on September 9, 2017  9:16am

Nothing like an objective reporter.

posted by: SusanKennedy on September 9, 2017  12:27pm

Glad to see the Federal trial of Detective Daniel Conklin and Lieutenant Jason Rentkowicz is finally occurring. This video footage from the Edgewood man’s home security camera is amazing! Watch the whole thing. At the 10:20 mark Daniel Conklin returns to the porch after having escorted the man away in handcuffs. Why? Is that perhaps when he retrieved the Edgewood man’s phone (to create its mysterious disappearance)? It certainly looks like he came back to get something. Don’t police empty suspects’ pockets of all belongings at the moment of arrest? But more important, this video clearly shows Daniel Conklin lied when he described his version of the event to the New Haven Independent back in December 2016 (http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/cops_to_promote_alleged_camera-grabber/). That an actual arrest was made of a citizen doing what any one of us would do—helping our elderly mother navigate her way through a construction site—is an outrage to the residents and taxpayers of New Haven based on what is clearly evident in this video.  It seems obvious to me that Officer Daniel Conklin violated the rights of this man, made trumped-up charges against him, and maliciously prosecuted and humiliated him publicly because of his ego and abusive, behind-the-badge power. Daniel Conklin is a thin-skinned bully, in my opinion, and it’s all there for the world to see on video (and in several New Haven Police Department Internal Affairs investigation reports!). Are there any real consequences for rogue officers in the New Haven Police Department? This appears to be a dire issue that needs to be addressed head on for the good of New Haven’s residents and its police department.

posted by: I Shouted Out... on September 9, 2017  6:53pm

With citizens out there like the Edgewood man with his window cam, bad cops like Daniel Conklin make the New Haven Police Department look like the Keystone Cops! Not familiar with the term? Here’s a description:

[To be a “Keystone Cop” is an expression still regularly applied to an individual or a group that appears extremely incompetent while exhibiting an uncommon amount of energy in the pursuit of failure. In other words: ineffectiveness on steroids, chaos on wheels.]

Officer Daniel Conklin is a colossal embarrassment to his police colleagues. A disgrace to the uniform. A bad hire with powerful family connections, perhaps? And the city of New Haven has to defend him per union contract rules. A defense paid for with dollars that come out of citizens’ pockets! Maybe that’s what I meant when I twisted that Hill Street Blues quote in my comment in the New Haven Independent’s “How to spot a rogue cop” article (http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/9.5m_question_rogue_cops/):

“Let’s be careful out there…citizens.”

In other words: the New Haven Keystone Cops Department won’t just NOT protect you and your civil rights, they’ll put on a clown show while violating your rights! Is our court system a clown show too? Not if those jurors have eyes says me!! More power to the Edgewood man for having the smarts to install that home security cam. I give his video two thumbs up! Pass the popcorn please, I can’t wait for the second half of this trial.

posted by: robn on September 10, 2017  7:49am

I understand the writers lohical intention but I find the public profiling of the jury pool to questionable.

posted by: AnthonyD on September 10, 2017  8:49am

OK, the video shows the man is innocent to me at least and that Conklin is a cop to be feared in New Haven. But how many videos of police situations like this, like when people of color get roughed up or killed in traffic stops, deliver justice to the victims in court? This guy’s a white guy who seems annoyed at the laziness of a cop getting extra duty pay. So he says something to the cop and gets arrested. If a man of color did that he’d face worse I’m saying. It’s been said in comments here and in other reporting on this story in the New Haven Independent that Officer Daniel Conklin had family connections that could have put him on easy street. Easy street indeed (if this is maybe what is meant by that family connection): http://m.sfgate.com/news/article/Stamford-police-captain-highest-earner-for-fifth-347768.php. Extra duty pay seems like a good add-on story for Paul Bass and staff to go after about the New Haven Police Department.

posted by: robn on September 10, 2017  9:30am

Conklin’s “Creating a Public Disturbance” charge is utter BS. As is Rentkowicz’ s ridiculous “Close Pursuit” defense of Conklin’s outrageous attempt to enter Mr. Serfilippi property without a warrant.
Rentkowicz should be reprimanded and Conklin should be flat out fired. He wasn’t doing his job and then tried to warp the law to justify his thin skin towards the truth that he perceived as an insult.

posted by: HhE on September 10, 2017  1:59pm

Well said Robn.  If we had real leadership (Mayor and Chief of Police), that would have happened already.  I also agree that describing the jury is suspect.  I might add, some of the jury’s trip to court is rather long (I used to work in Colchester, and I have friends in Norwich, and birth drives are an hour or more—best case).

The disappearing phone can only be explained as incompetence or deliberate; the former is not much less worse than the latter, and the latter is criminal.

posted by: narcan on September 10, 2017  2:45pm

A critique of the jury selection (which both the plaintiff and the defendant selected) with commentary hardly seems like objective reporting.

The video appears to show a man taking it upon himself to direct traffic on a construction site. I struggle to find a reasonable justification for that under the circumstances. His body language suggests he was giving attention to, and possibly speaking to, the crew and officer. But perhaps the video was manipulated by the police to make Serfilippi appear to be in the wrong.

Hopefully the court has the unedited version so they may determine what really happened.

posted by: Rashida on September 11, 2017  7:42am

Another example of criminal police misconduct.  The police turning on and victimizing the people they are supposed to be protecting.  What’s different here?  You might say the fact that the truth has been captured on video.  But the real difference here is that Messrs. Conklin and Rentkowicz violated the rights of an educated man who has the financial wherewithal and community standing to defend his rights and seek justice. 
Let’s not kid ourselves, if Messrs. Conklin and Rentkowicz chose to make a false and malicious arrest under these circumstances, this must just be the tip of the ice burg in regards to how they really conduct themselves when they are on the street and there is no video and the person arrested is a person of color, living in poverty, with no meaningful education or practical ability to protect their own rights.  This arrest should call into question the validity of all past arrests by this dynamic duo.  Rather than reward this systemic and criminal behavior by promoting Mr. Conklin to detective the NHPD Internal Affairs and the ADA should instead be looking into his past arrests.
The police and other law enforcement need to be patient, judicious and willing to listen.  There is no room for bullies or officers who use excessive force and then lie in order to cover up their crime.  One way to stop this criminal behavior is for local and federal prosecutors to take notice and prosecute the police when they file false police reports and then attempt to substantiate their criminal acts by lying under oath.  These are serious crimes that undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system.

posted by: HhE on September 11, 2017  8:26am

Well said, Rashida, and spot on.

posted by: duncanidaho645 on September 11, 2017  11:31am

Luckily no one was murdered by police on this day, but it is clear that if this pattern of behavior is rewarded we will get there eventually.  Conklin should grow up and stop acting like a baby, “He hurt my finger while I was trying to invade his home!” The supervisor should be fired for allowing the arrest rather than just giving Conklin a pacifier.