State police are investigating how one of their dogs ended up attacking three cops at a New Haven political protest Saturday.
City police are investigating how the state police remained in control of a protest on city streets — and how a non-violent protest ended up in tear gas, arrests, and charges of a “police riot.”
Meanwhile, Buddhist barista Nate Blair was back serving coffee to cops and other regular customers Monday, recovering from a concussion after officers wrestled him to the ground at the protest two days earlier.
Those were the latest developments in what one attorney present called a “police riot.”
The episode has sparked a series of internal reviews and meetings both at the Connecticut State Police and at the New Haven Police Department, which for decades has coordinated peaceful protests with demonstrators and prided itself on avoiding the kind of chaos and allegations of police misconduct that emerged Saturday.
The episode occurred at the end of a protest that at one point saw demonstrators allegedly blocking the path of emergency vehicles headed for Yale-New Haven Hospital.
The protest began uneventfully outside City Hall Saturday afternoon, where about 200 demonstrators rallied against President Donald Trump’s orders to ban travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim nations and to withhold federal dollars from immigrant-embracing “sanctuary cities” like New Haven. Chief Anthony Campbell said police had not been aware of the protest; he called that an error on the part of both protest organizers, who should have coordinated with police, and on police intelligence. Posters announcing the protest has been visible on downtown utility poles for days in advance; the protest was also publicized on social media.
Around 5 p.m., the protesters marched to Route 34, a state road leading to Yale-New Haven Hospital. State police arrived on the scene. In an official statement, police said the protesters blocked the path of emergency vehicles, including one in which a crew had to perform an emergency procedure because it couldn’t get the patient to the hospital. (Asked for more information on that incident, state police said to ask the hospital, which had no details. The protest organizers released a statement Monday night saying they never blocked any vehicles and had informed everyone to move out of the way if a vehicle needed to pass through.)
A lawyer for the protesters, Patricia Kane, told the Independent that in fact she introduced herself to three troopers and identified herself. She said the protesters would move out of the way of any emergency vehicles. She said the troopers told her to move out of the way; one of the troopers was accompanied by a dog that lunged at her.
The protesters agreed to leave the state road after about a half hour. They marched up Church Street. And that’s when the trouble started.
New Haven police arrived on the scene. State police continued following the protesters. It was unclear who was in charge.
Food, Not Bombs
Nate Blair, a 26-year-old city native, was on Church Street at the periphery of the action. Blair grew up two doors from the New Haven Zen Center on Mansfield Street, where his father, Bruce Blair, served as the abbot. His grandfather, William Blair, was an activist minister. Nate Blair said the family trained him in non-violent protest, in which he was engaged this Saturday.
He had joined the demonstration earlier in the day as a member of a group called Food Not Bombs. The group served free vegan soup, salad, and cooked broccoli to the demonstrators. Then Blair joined the march to Route 34, then back up Church.
He said he participated in a group chanting, “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” A New Haven cop at the scene grew enraged at the chant, Blair said. Next thing he knew, the officer charged at him, Blair said. “He grabbed my arm. He went to put it behind my back. I didn’t resist, because I did not do anything wrong.” The officer and several others wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.
The police later claimed that the dreadlocked Blair had rushed at the cop, and that’s why he was taken down and arrested.
Blair denied it. “I did not touch him,” Blair insisted. He noted that he was charged with disorderly conduct — not with, say, resisting or interfering with or assaulting an officer.
Other demonstrators were upset with Blair’s arrest, and told the cops so. Shouting ensued as the crowd moved up to Chapel Street.
There, state police were looking for one of the protest leaders, 66-year-old Norman Clement, in connection with the earlier blocking of Route 34. They spotted him. In the midst of a throng of protesters on Chapel, they went after him.
What happened next is in dispute. State police said Clement ran, so they pursued. They said Clement knocked people over. They subdued him and hit him with pepper spray. They charged him with inciting a riot, among other offenses.
Witnesses — including Kane, Clement’s lawyer; and fellow protest organizer John Lugo — said the cops set a police dog on Clement, and Clement was running from that. They said it was the cops knocking people over.
Either way, a chaotic scene ensued, with people complaining about the dogs menacing people and about the pepper spray. At least one of the state police dogs was upset, too. That dog bit two cops and tore the clothing of a third.
“The only violence I saw,” Kane said Monday, “was police violence.”
“It was a police riot,” she said.
“We Should Have Taken Lead”
Local police officials began holding meetings Monday to get to the bottom of what happened, and how to prevent a recurrence.
Chief Campbell said in an interview that the police never knew the rally was taking place to begin with. He said he will look at how intelligence can improve so the cops aren’t caught unaware next time.
But he also said police will reach out to the protest’s organizers. For decades now, protest organizers have generally met with police in advance of demonstrations to arrange for streets to be blocked off in an orderly fashion and ensure that emergency vehicles can pass through. That didn’t happen this time.
Campbell also said he will look at why his officers didn’t take command of the scene once the protest moved off a state road. “Once they got them off the highway, we should have taken the lead” and directed the police response to the evolving protest, he said.
Campbell refrained from criticizing the state police for using dogs and pepper spray on a non-violent protester in a crowd. He noted that they train their officers differently from the way New Haven does.
He did say that New Haven cops are not supposed to rush after non-violent targets in a crowd situation and use canines or pepper spray. Rather, they should radio ahead to other officers to apprehend the person. Or, since they generally know the local protesters — including Clement — they could always catch up with him later rather than inflame a tense situation, Campbell said.
“To run into a crowd that is riled up is not something we would have done,” Campbell said. He said he is “disappointed” in what happened.
Mayor Toni Harp said the same on her weekly “Mayor Monday” program on WNHH FM radio. She said that New Haven has a proud tradition of working well with protesters and doesn’t as a rule set dogs on them or pepper-spray them in crowds when no violent offenses are occurring.
“One of the things our officers learn is deescalation,” Harp said.
Departments like New Haven’s are being put to the test in the new Trump era, with daily protests around the nation, some of them turning violent, others, like Saturday’s in New Haven, taking spontaneous turns that catch cops off guard. “Our police department is ready for that test,” Harp said.
She and Campbell said the police are determined to protect the right of citizens to protest, but also expect protest organizers to work with police to keep everyone safe.
“We’ve got to sit down with ... the leaders of these groups and explain to them how not to get arrested, and what they need to do in order to let the police department know where they’re going to be, and to let them know where we have jurisdiction and where we don’t,” Harp said.
Asked if organizers will give cops a heads-up in the future, organizer Lugo issued a statement on behalf of the coalition behind Saturday’s rally. It said that in the past some members of the coalition have worked with police in planning protests, while others have not. “Getting police permission and permits is a tactic decision on a case-by-case basis. There are times that the movement cannot be constrained to work with the same system it is in struggle with.”
“During this two-hour long period of civil disobedience, no NHPD officer deployed pepper spray or any other chemical agent against anyone,” police spokesman Officer David Hartman stated in a release Tuesday. “We will not fall for baiting tactics from the press or from council for anyone arrested. There have been a dozen, or so, protests, marches and public space events in which citizens, en mass, have expressed their opinions over the recent political situation. The New Haven Police Department has a long and distinguished history of protecting everyone in our city and that includes protesters and demonstrators.”
States Takes This “Seriously”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the police dog should not have attacked the three officers. The state police are reviewing the incident with an eye to answering two questions: “Is it that the canine did not have the right temperament? Or is it due to the handler?” said the spokesperson, Kelly Donnelly.
“The Connecticut State Police have expressed that they take this matter very seriously. It is our understanding that they are conducting multiple reviews of incidents surrounding weekend protest in New Haven. We trust that they will proceed with their examinations in a deliberate and thorough manner,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly also said that city officers, not just state officers, were involved in chasing and subduing Clement on Chapel Street.
The reason the state cops had a police dog at the scene in the first place? When the call came in about Route 34 being blocked, the closest officer to the scene happened to be a canine officer, Donnelly said. (Click here to view a copy of the state police’s policy on canine teams.)
State police officials refused requests for an interview about what happened Saturday and why. Instead, Commissioner Dora B. Schriro issued a written statement to the Independent. The statement did not respond to submitted questions, such as why state police felt the need to use a police dog or pepper spray on peaceful protesters in a crowd to arrest someone on a charge relating to non-violent actions in another location.
The statement noted that the police dog bit two troopers, one of whom was “treated and released” while the other declined treatment; and bit a police officer’s clothing.
“We take all uses of force very seriously, and this incident will undergo several layers of review. The K-9 bites are documented and will be investigated, including a full after action report. CSP will also review all of the circumstances surrounding the bites and take additional steps as warranted,” the statement reads. It affirms citizens’ right to protest while “respectfully remind[ing] any group that wishes to gather in a reasonable time, place, and manner, that they are welcome to do so, but that under no circumstances may a group assemble on limited access/major thoroughfares or block emergency vehicles.”
Worth “Putting Body In Harm’s Way”
A few blocks from that scene, after all had quieted down Monday, Nate Blair had returned to work as a barista. He said he was treated at the hospital and diagnosed with a minor concussion from his experience.
Ordering a coffee from Blair, a city police officer expressed his condolences and his concern.
Blair told him he’s not mad at the cop who arrested him. He blames the state police for having created a dangerous, chaotic situation.
“I believe there was undue stress on the New Haven police to act in an aggressive way,” he said.
“The guy who arrested me — I just think he needed better training.”
Assistant Police Chief Tony Reyes, without commenting specifically on Blair’s arrest, said he has been reviewing the day’s incidents in depth.
“There were clearly things that could have been handled better,” he said. “We will be addressing those issues.”
Blair argued that sometimes it’s “worth putting your body in harm’s way” for an important cause. President Trump’s “inhumane and fundamentally un-American” immigration policies, he said, fit that bill.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full “Mayor Monday” episode with Mayor Toni Harp. Besides Saturday’s police incident, the episode covers New Haven’s emerging Chinese sister-city relationship, its actions to embrace refugees, the state budget outlook, and the growth of New Haven’s grand list.
The episode was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem, Moses & Devlin, P.C.