The police sergeant at the center of FBI and local internal affairs investigations said when people see the cellphone video he confiscated, they’re going to be surprised.
It will show that he acted properly last weekend in subduing an unruly man in the Temple Street courtyard and in seizing a cellphone camera from and then arresting an Ansonia woman who recorded his actions.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” the sergeant, Chris Rubino, remarked in an interview Thursday before attending a workshop at the Apple Store on Broadway about dealing with electronic equipment and files.
“All the people that say I was wrong and I should be fired—it was blown out of proportion by the press. The press wants to sensationalize it. That’s what they got.”
Rubino expressed no regrets from his actions on the job last Saturday at around 1:45 a.m. Those actions have led to a New Haven police internal affairs probe into whether Rubino’s camera seizure and arrest order violated a department policy. After a photo (at left) of Rubino and the subdued unruly man appeared in the Independent, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into his handling of a suspect.
Rubino was supervising cops dealing with the regular wild weekend antics of clubgoers who wreak havoc downtown when the bars let out.
Patrons leaving clubs were pouring onto the courtyard on Temple Street between Temple and College streets. Police said several known troublemakers refused orders to disperse. One of them was a 24-year-old Bridgeport man with a history of run-ins with cops (including a similar arrest the following night). Police said he refused to leave the plaza, then fought with them hard as they subdued and arrested him.
A crowd gathered. Some members of the crowd whipped out their cameras to record the action. (Click on the play arrow for one video taken of the preliminary action. It does not capture the alleged brutality that allegedly appeared on the seized video.) Back-up officers arrived. They ordered people to leave the scene and blocked the view of picture-takers. Many complied.
Jennifer Gondola of Ansonia, who was leaving Pulse nightclub, was among the crowd. She had a clear view of Rubino and the suspect. She said she saw Rubino kick the suspect’s head bloody while he was on the ground handcuffed, so she decided to start video-recording. (Other witnesses interviewed in this story offered similar accounts of police misconduct.) Gondola said she captured Rubino and other cops kicking and beating the handcuffed man. Rubino paused when he saw what she was doing. He came over, asked to see the video, then asked for the phone. Gondola stuffed the camera in her bra. Rubino ordered a female cop to retrieve the phone. Then he pocketed it and ordered Gondola arrested for “interfering.”
Rubino said he needed the camera to preserve evidence of a crime. Gondola argued that he was snatching evidence of his own crimes.
“She wanted to be aggressive,” Rubino said Thursday of Gondola. “If she wanted to play the game, we can play the game.”
“I would never have let her leave with that phone,” Rubino continued. “Do you think anybody ever turns anything in in favor of the police? She would have never brought that in. I took that because it was in my favor.”
Rubino said the video captured the illegal actions of the man he was arresting. He said that supported his reasons for arresting and restraining the man.
“It showed what we had to do to make the arrest that had to be made to keep control of a situation that’s out of control every weekend,” claimed Rubino, who said that next month he will have reached 20 years on the job.
“The video was not in his favor. I hope and pray he didn’t erase the video,” Jennifer Gondola (pictured) responded Thursday. “It does show the suspect getting beat. It was excessive force. I’m hoping other videos come out showing this if my video is erased.
“I was not aggressive at all. I stated my rights and I made sure I stayed calm. I didn’t want to be uncooperative. I wanted to stand for what I knew was right. I was not loud. I was very calm.”
Gondola plans to meet with her attorney before responding to a police/FBI request to consent to having her cellphone video reviewed. Her phone remains in police custody.
The two investigations, meanwhile, have slightly different foci. The feds are believed to be focusing on whether the handling of the handcuffed suspect violated civil-rights law. The New Haven investigation is exploring that question, too, but is also zeroing in on what has proved a nettlesome question for the department, one that has now exposed the city to two potential civil suits: the snatching of cameras from citizens.
Police union President, Arpad Tolnay defended Rubino by saying the department’s order against preventing citizens from recording officers’ actions in public does allow for seizing cameras to preserve evidence in cases like this, a view that others have interpreted differently. In addition to the order, the camera-seizure question will be decided in part by interpretations of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limits cops’ search and seizure rights.
For Rubino to prevail on that question, he must show he was acting under “exigent circumstances” that required him to take Gondola’s camera—rather than, for instance, asking her to email the video to her, then seeking a search warrant if she refused. According to one summary of a federal ruling on the question, Rubino would have to prove that in the Temple Plaza, he had to take the camera based on “reasonable grounds to believe that there is an immediate need to protect their lives, the lives of others, their property, or that of others, [and that] the search is not motivated by an intent to arrest and seize evidence, and there is some reasonable basis, to associate an emergency with the area or place to be searched.”
New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney said Rubino’s case fails to meet the threshold for such “exigencies.”
“That would be a reach” for numerous reasons, Looney said: Rubino had plenty of other evidence (including the eyewitness accounts of other cops present at the scene) to document the reasons for arresting the man in the courtyard. Even if no other evidence were available, a true “emergency” has to exist to seize property or, say, enter a private residence without a warrant, such as a threat to somebody’s life. “Someone screaming inside a building ... about to be killed or severely hurt in that moment,” for instance.
Looney (pictured), a private attorney as well as the majority leader of the state Senate, authored a state bill to make cops personally liable for violating citizens’ rights to record police in action. He authored that bill in the wake of another instance of a high-ranking New Haven cop seizing a citizens’ camera and ordering his arrest (in addition to erasing the memory card). Looney noted that Rubino’s actions occurred despite the fact that former Chief Frank Limon issued an order and then had cops trained to prevent such camera grabs or arrests.
“That points out the need for the legislation we propose,” Looney said of his bill, which he plans to reintroduce next session. (It passed the Senate this year, but not the House of Representatives.) “Nothing focuses the mind like knowing you might be sued for taking away people’s rights.”
Meanwhile, Rubino remains on the beat. Before Thursday morning’s session began at the Apple Store, he said he remains confident that he has always done his job well and will emerge from the scandal with his reputation intact.
Some two dozen district managers, detectives, and other top cops attended the Thursday Apple workshop. Apple’s Jonathan Torres walked the group through using Apple’s iCloud feature to try to locate missing iPhones and iPads. He discussed camera photo and storage techniques.
Rubino sat front and center at the store’s “Genius Bar.” He listened intently. Toward the end he asked a question: If someone wipes out the information on a cellphone, will information disappear from the phone’s SIM card memory chip?
Torres and a fellow staffer weighed the question. The response: A record of phone numbers contacted will remain. Photo and video files are gone forever.