One duo helped murder-victims’ families seek justice. The other duo stood up to police harassment—and got results.
The members of the first duo, Jillian Knox and Lt. Holly Wasilewski, wear badges. The other duo consists of a lifelong civil-rights attorney and an iPhone-toting clubgoing realtor and office worker. Both duos follow up on what they start. Both duos wear toughness as well as compassion on their sleeves.
In 2012, that combination enabled both dynamic duos to advance New Haven’s number-one cause: the return of community-based policing.
They are the Independent’s Women of the Year. (It’s the same category as “Man of the Year” or “Person of the Year” or “People of the Year.” Click here, here, here, and here to read about some past Independent honorees.)
After a bloody year on the streets, New Haven set about in 2012 to recapture the high-contact, walking-beat, prevention- and accountability-oriented community policing approach that led to a dramatic reduction of violence in the 1990s. A new chief came to town, Dean Esserman, who had helped launch the 1990s experiment here.
For community policing 2.0 to succeed, cops on the inside had to reorient how they conduct business. And people on the outside had to both start working with the police—and put pressure on them if they saw problems.
Keeping Police Honest
Enter Jennifer Gondola, a 36-year-old government worker from Ansonia who also sells real estate.
Gondola and some friends were leaving New Haven’s downtown Pulse nightclub around 1:45 a.m. on June 2 when they came upon a wild scene in the Temple Street courtyard. As usual when the bars let out on weekends, wasted club-goers were starting fights, harassing people, or mouthing off to the cops. Sgt. Chris Rubino was trying to arrest one such out-of-control club-goer.
Members of the gathering crowd, including Gondola, thought Rubino was going too far by stomping on the man’s neck when he was already in cuffs. She whipped out her iPhone 4 and recorded the scene. She called out Rubino—and tried to spare the arrestee from more pain by pleading with him to stop swearing at the cop. (Click on the play arrow to watch her video.)
Rubino reacted by ordering Gondola to hand over her phone to him, allegedly to preserve crucial evidence in a routine arrest for which he already had plenty of fellow cops as eyewitnesses to corroborate his story. She stood up to him. She stashed the phone in her bra. She insisted on her constitutional rights. He responded by violating them—having a female officer remove the phone from Gondola’s bra, then having Gondola hauled to the station and arrested. Even though the department had put in place a new policy and trained cops specifically to respect citizens’ rights to video-record them.
Gondola continued to fight back. She filed a complaint with the department against Rubino, who has a history of department discipline for trashing the rights of people who tick him off. Both the department and the FBI launched immediate probes. The FBI ended up handing off the probe to New Haven; Chief Esserman concluded that Gondola was right, that Rubino shouldn’t have stomped on the arrestee’s neck. Rubino got a 15-day suspension. (Rubino defended his actions; read his side here.)
The chief also concluded that despite its good intentions, the city’s new policy protecting citizens’ rights is too vague, preventing him from taking disciplinary action on what he considered Rubino’s improper handling of Gondola and her iPhone. So the chief ordered a review to tighten up that policy.
That’s how the system’s supposed to work: An abused citizen pursues legal channels to produce not just individual discipline, but, potentially, systemic change.
Gondola had crucial help in that task: attorney Diane Polan, for decades one of New Haven’s most respected defenders of citizens whose rights get trampled. (Separately this year Polan helped convince a federal judge to push federal prosecutors to provide defendants caught up in a 105-person drug sweep speedier access to evidence against them.)
Polan had previously represented Luis Luna, whom police arrested in 2010 and whose camera they confiscated (erasing photos) after he recorded them in action on a public street. That case led to an internal investigation showing that an assistant police chief who ordered that arrest had violated department policy. He left the force. Luna’s case led New Haven state Sen. Marty Looney to introduce a proposal aimed at stopping the abuses statewide.
A judge dismissed the charges against Gondola in September. (A state prosecutor had to admit he had no case but was reluctant to give up, unlike a predecessor who had abandoned another case of overreach by Sgt. Rubino.)
Now Polan is researching a potential civil rights lawsuit on behalf of both Gondola and Luna against the city to ensure that it trains its cops better to respect the rights of citizens to record officers’ actions in public. As far as she’s concerned, this case isn’t closed.
“It’s not clear to me it’s not going to happen again next week,” Polan said. “Unfortunately cities or police departments rarely make the necessary changes to protect citizens’ constitutional rights until they’ve been sued successfully.”
Keeping Police Connected
Meanwhile, as part of the roll-out of Community Policing 2.0, pressure intensified on police from inside the department this year, too. Pressure to walk beats instead of patrolling in cars. Pressure to visit the homes of people touched by crime. Pressure to link up with social workers, outreach workers, other law enforcement agencies, and neighborhood groups to tackle problems. Pressure to get to know people and earn their trust.
Lt. Wasilewski, the top cop in charge of the Hill North neighborhood, had already been doing that. For years. Mentoring teen girls she met at Church Street South. Holding holiday parties at the substation. Acquiring good information on people committing crimes. Launching a bedsheet and pillow drive for Hill families. Speaking to people on the street, day in and day out, whether they make trouble or get bothered by troublemakers or have family members in trouble. They all know “Miss Holly” or “Lieutenant Holly,” lean on her for help, or scatter if they’re up to no good and see her coming, as visitors from Tajikistan observed last month when they accompanied Wasilewski on rounds of the Church Street South projects. Even breast cancer couldn’t take her off the beat for more than a few months; nor did a drunk driver who smashed into her car this year slow her down.
Wasilewski’s relationships and caring came in handy throughout 2012.
One day in June cops chased a driver into Dixwell from the Hill. He barricaded himself in a house and took a little girl as a hostage. Police needed to talk to a young woman who’d been a passenger in the car; she agreed to cooperate—if she could talk to “Holly.” Wasilewski knew her mother well from the beat. Wasilewski talked with the young woman.
Another day, two men believed to be involved in an armed robbery ran from the cops into an apartment on Davenport Avenue. They barricaded themselves inside. The SWAT team came to the scene. But it didn’t end up having to break down the door. A street outreach worker on the scene got one of the barricaded men on the phone; the man said he’d come out if he could talk to Wasilewski. She took the phone; he came out. Again, Wasilewski knew the mother. Wasilewski knew the second man inside the apartment, too. She walked inside the building and called to him through the door, then took him step by step through the process of surrendering without having a confrontation with the SWAT team.
When bullets killed young New Haveners, Wasilewski (pictured) would meet up with family members to offer support, especially if she’d dealt with them in the past. “Big Eddie” Trimble was one such father; he’d worked with Wasilewski for years when his sons got drawn into gang life. He and Wasilewski linked up right away when his son Tyrell was murdered this May.
In those cases, Wasilewski often ended up working in concert with Officer Knox. Knox found herself rushing to too many shooting scenes this year in her new role as the department’s victim outreach coordinator. It’s her job to console families and shepherd them through the process of dealing with the aftermath of a son’s or brother’s or grandson’s shooting.
By mid-year Knox, a former Hill patrol officer with 10 years on the job, succeeded in bringing 30 or so parents of survivors into 1 Union Avenue for a monthly support group session. Read about that here.
In between those meetings Knox has hustled to hospital rooms and funerals and families’ homes to guide survivors through the process of grieving, through applying for state victims’ compensation, through dealing with investigators or the court system. Read about that here. This year Chief Esserman began inviting families to press conferences for the announcements of shooters’ arrests; Knox brought them to the events and prepared them.
Knox phoned Wasilewski after police arrested the alleged killer of Eddie Jackson. Wasilewski knew Jackson’s family, of course. Knox thought it would be a good idea for Jackson’s mom, Theresa Gambrell, to meet the mother of Daryl S. McIver; police had earlier charged the same alleged shooter in McIver’s murder.
“I thought it would be good for the two mothers to meet each other,” Knox recalled.
She and Wasilewski went to Gambrell’s house, drove her to the house of McIver’s mom, Mary Hilton. A friendship and mini-support group began that night. Since then the two have accompanied each other to court for the pretrial appearances of the alleged killer for each son’s case. They’ve helped each other deal with the grief.
Hilton calls Wasilewski and Knox “wonderful people” and unusual police officers. “They’re doing a hell of a job for me as a black woman in a rough community. I appreciate that.”
Previous stories on Jennifer Gondola’s case:
• Camerawoman’s Case Dismissed
• Sgt. Rubino Suspended For 15 Days
• FBI Drops Rubino Probe
• IA Probes Camera-Grabbing Cop For 7th Time
• State Wins Delay To “Research” Camera-Grabbing
• Video-Recorded Arrestee Disputes Police Account
• FBI Gets OK To Inspect Cop-Filmer’s Phone
• Rubino: “I’ll Be Vindicated”
• FBI Joins Beating Probe
• Sgt. Arrests Video-Taker; IA Probe Begins