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Dueling Protests At New Haven City Hall After Officer Exonerated

Davis Dunavin

In New Haven, Connecticut, protests have started again in response to the city's handling of a video showing a police officer using force against a 15-year-old girl at the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade. But this time, two sides are protesting- those who support the officer, and those calling for more scrutiny of his actions.

At a city hall press conference Friday, Chief Dean Esserman said Officer Joshua Smereczynsky would be returned to active duty after an internal investigation exonerated him.

"A police officer made his arrest and followed the training he received," Esserman said. He said Smereczynsky had been trained in Meriden and the hold he used on the girl was a legal one. Esserman also said he had apologized to the girl in the video and had promised to use the power of the New Haven Police Department to help her.

But critics say Officer Joshua Smereczynsky shouldn't be back on the street. Supporters say the city shouldn't have put him on desk duty in the first place.

The video, published on Youtube, showed Smereczynsky arresting the girl after police were called about an altercation involving the girl at Buffalo Wild Wings. In the process, Smereczynsky slammed her to the ground, fracturing her shoulder and cutting her face. After police found a knife on her person, the girl was charged with possession of a deadly weapon, interfering with an officer and breach of peace. 

Last week, a group of protesters occupied first the lobby of the New Haven Police Department, then Mayor Toni Harp's office at city hall, demanding a response from the city. They said the video showed a clear case of police brutality.

"This shows the lack of respect they have for the community," said Barbara Fair, one of the lead organizers of the protests, on Monday. "They have an officer out there who just did this, knowing we're upset, and they have him on the street still working."

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Protest organizer Barbara Fair and her daughter, co-organizator Holly Tucker, argue with police supporters during the dueling protests.

Smereczynsky was taken off the street, though, on Tuesday, and that's what upset police supporters. On Friday, police supporters interrupted a city hall press conference hosted by Chief Dean Esserman and Mayor Toni Harp. Chanting "We support the police" and "New Mayor, New Chief," police supporters said they felt betrayed by the city's actions. At least two dozen protesters crowded city hall and the steps outside- police, retired police, and family members of police.

"We felt we were alone on this," said Police Union President Louis Cavaliere, leading the crowd of police supporters. "This kid was forgotten about. The chief went over to the arrestee's house to make an apology. Where was his apology? Where was his visit?"

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
New Haven Police Union President Louis Cavaliere leads police supporters at City Hall Friday.

From there, dozens of police supporters and dozens of police critics started getting personal. Race came up almost immediately; the girl in the video is African-American, and Smereczynsky is white.

"You're all white supremacists!" yelled one protester on the critics' side.

"We're protecting your rights, too, dumbbell!" responded a protester on the supporters' side.

When someone in the crowd yelled "Ghetto garbage!" Nazim Muhammad, a protester on the side of the police critics,  responded incredulously.

"That was racial, man!" he yelled. "What's ghetto trash mean? In the ghetto is black people. What are you saying? I live in the ghetto and I'm not garbage. You might as well call me a {expletive]."

The two-way protests spilled out into the street, with dueling chants from police supporters and police critics. From both sides came profanity, slurs, insults, mockery, and arguments.

Esserman said he thinks both sides will move past the St. Patrick's Day incident and everything that came after it.

"No department can work without the support of its community, and no community can live without his police," he said at the press conference, ignoring police critics who laughed derisively as he said it. "I'm sorry that the hard work of every one of these great police officers and the hard work of this community coming together is being brought to a point here and now. But we will move beyond this."

Muhammad said he's afraid tensions won't go away any time soon.

"It's wrong on both sides, man," he said, walking down the stairs of City Hall and out the door. "Somebody gotta come to appeasement. You can't keep going back and forth. Who gonna make it right, man? Who gonna make it right?"

"I'm going home, man," he said as he walked down the steps, past where supporters and critics of police were still going back and forth. And people on both sides were chanting at each other, "You are the problem."

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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