MERIDEN — City resident Ryan Holley is alleging undercover police officers in the city’s Crime Suppression Unit racially profiled him during an incident last month that ended with Holley, armed at the time, being shot and wounded by three officers in a CVS parking lot.
Holley, who is black, also believes the undercover officers unnecessarily escalated the situation by not identifying themselves as police while closely following Holley’s car in an unmarked vehicle for several miles.
Police Chief Jeffry Cossette called the claim “ridiculous” and said the situation was “severely escalated” when officers observed a gun discharge in Holley’s vehicle. He also expressed confidence that the officers, whom he didn’t name, will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Five officers in an unmarked SUV began following Holley on Oct. 18 about 10:20 p.m. sometime after Holley picked up his co-worker Michael Thurman, also black, in front of St. Joseph Church on Goodwill Avenue on his way to work at LaserShip’s courier facility on Research Parkway. Police haven’t yet specified why they began following Holley’s 1999 Buick Century.
Holley, a registered gun owner with no criminal history, has not been charged since the incident.
Police followed Holley’s car for several miles beginning on West Main Street and onto Lewis Avenue, Interstate 691 and Route 15, where Holley exited onto East Main Street and pulled into the parking lot of the CVS Pharmacy. Officers noticed a gun discharge in Holley’s car while following him. Holley said he accidentally discharged his gun in his hand while driving after he pulled it out of his glove compartment because he feared for his safety. Thurman also said the gun discharged accidentally.
Three officers shot Holley in the parking after Holley exited his vehicle with his registered firearm in his hand. Holley said he wasn’t “ready to engage in a firefight with anybody” when he got out of the car, but wanted to protect himself.
Holley was shot in his right hand and wrist area and in the left elbow.
“I saw him go down and thought he was dead,” said Thurman who initially remained in Holley’s car before being removed by police. Holley was treated at Hartford Hospital and is still unable to work at his job as a freight coordinator at LaserShip because of his injuries.
Holley doesn’t question why police shot him given the circumstances, but questions why police “began following me in the first place” and why they did not identify themselves as police sooner.
“Everybody keeps asking me, ‘What were they following you for?’ Listen, I don’t have the answer to that,” Holley said in his first interview since the incident. “….I’ll say it was racially profiling because that’s all I can say.”
Holley said that had police initially identified themselves, “I would have pulled over and put my hands up and that would have been it.”
Thurman corroborated Holley’s account of what happened in a separate interview this week.
“The question is why (police) started following us in the first place, and why they didn't say who they were until they started shooting at us,” said Thurman.
“It was just two black guys going to work. What other reason would they say they were following us for?” Thurman said. “Did they think there was a drug deal going on? But nobody gave us a reason for why they started following us in the first place and why they didn't announce who they were.”
‘I thought it was a threat’
Thurman said Holley began picking him up in front of the church on his way to work five nights a week about two months ago after Thurman’s car broke down. Thurman thought the driver inside the unmarked SUV was having “road rage” because they were speeding and driving erratically around Holley’s car.
“I don’t understand why the officers didn’t indicate they were police. It’s so weird,” Holley’s girlfriend, Ashley Peterson said. “Even after you heard a gunshot go off inside the car, why didn’t you identify yourself? ...This whole situation doesn’t make any sense and didn’t have to happen.
“It was all for no reason,” Peterson said. “And I don't give a damn, they were racially profiling.”
City Manager Tim Coon, who in his previous job was in charge of the training curriculum for all municipal police officers in Connecticut, deferred comment on the incident to Cossette but said the officers' actions are “something to be analyzed” to determine if policies were followed.
Cossette said officers began following Holley as “part of an observation or an investigation,” but declined to elaborate because state police are investigating the incident at the direction of the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office.
The state’s attorney’s office did not return a request for comment. Any charges against Holley would be filed by the state attorney’s office, Cossette said.
Cossette said there was “no justification” for Holley to discharge his gun, though he acknowledged that officers did not identify themselves to Holley until they arrived at the CVS parking lot.
Holley said when his gun accidentally discharged the shot went through his front windshield, in the opposite direction of the unmarked police vehicle, which was trailing behind Holley’s car on the driver’s side at the time.
“I had it in my hand and when I grabbed the wheel, it went off,” Holley said, which Thurman later corroborated. “My coworker will tell you that was an accident. I did not mean for that to happen.”
Holley, who moved to Connecticut in 2010, said he grew up around gang violence in places like Oakland, California, and Chicago, so his instinct was to protect himself while being “harassed by someone I didn’t know while going to work.”
“I thought it was a threat,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. They have super dark tints...they’re not identifying themselves as police.”
Holley decided to get off the East Main Street exit on Route 15, instead of driving to his work on Research Parkway, because he wanted to pull off in a well-lit area.
Holley said the SUV police were driving did not have lights or a siren, which Cossette confirmed, and had tinted windows so he couldn’t see the officers inside wearing vests with “police” across the front. Holley became rattled when officers pulled up along the driver’s side and flashed a light into Holley’s car, which blinded him and caused him to swerve.
“I’m registered, I’m protecting myself. That’s what it came down to in my mind,” Holley said about his decision to pull his gun out, adding he had never discharged his gun since becoming a registered owner in 2012.
Once officers observed the discharge inside Holley’s car, their first priority became to “make the area safe” and they didn’t have time to wait for a marked police car to assist, Cossette said.
“If a marked unit isn’t available, then they're going to act accordingly as far as stopping the threat and containing the threat,” Cossette said.
The officers were placed on administrative assignment following the shooting. Cossette said two of the officers, who did not fire shots at Holley, have returned to normal duty. Cossette declined to name the officers because the case is still under investigation.
Cossette couldn’t say whether officers tried to call in Holley’s license plate, which would have indicated that Holley was a registered gun owner.
‘What do I have to hide?’
Crime Suppression Unit officers drive unmarked vehicles and wear vests with “police” shown in the front, Cossette said. The unit is a part of the department’s detective division and is “responsible for all street robberies, narcotics, prostitution, and vice-related crimes,” according to the department’s website.
“Members of this unit receive specialized training in the use of confidential informants, interview and interrogation, evidence collection, and surveillance,” the website says. “This is a hybrid unit where veteran detectives and younger patrol officers work together to combat narcotics trafficking… Since its inception in 2005, the Crime Suppression Unit has made several hundred narcotics and prostitution arrests and seized several hundred thousand dollars in cash and property from the sale of illegal drugs.”
Holley and Peterson said Holley is lucky to be alive and that the shooting could have been avoided.
“My story is always going to be the police versus me, so they going to rock with the police no matter what,” Holley said. “But they were wrong, period. You should have identified to us that you were police from the beginning because I have nothing to hide… If I knew it was the police, I’m a registered gun owner. What do I have to hide? I’m going to work with my coworker.”
Holley said not being able to work his job at LaserShip since the incident has been hard on him because he helps support his girlfriend and their 6-year-old son, who has special needs. Holley has thought about filing a civil suit against police, but said he has had a hard time finding legal representation.
Holley’s experience marks the second time in the last several months an interaction between undercover city officers and the public has drawn concerns.
In August, the father of a city man arrested following a pursuit with undercover officers driving an unmarked vehicle, reached out to the Record-Journal claiming his son did not know the armed undercover officers were police, causing him to flee.
Harold Williams, the father of 30-year-old Cinque Williams, said his son drove away from undercover officers on the evening of July 26 after the officers ordered Cinque Williams out of a car he just entered.
Before Williams entered the car, officers checked the license plate of the vehicle because it was illegally parked and discovered the plate had been reported stolen. Harold Williams said the car was purchased and registered but had been previously stolen from his son in Hartford earlier this year.
When officers approached Cinque Williams to order him out of the car, he did not see the police vests on the plainclothes officers and saw one of the men holding a weapon. So he drove off, not knowing they were police, Harold Williams said. At one point in the pursuit, Williams accelerated toward a police cruiser that an officer had just stepped out of, according to a police report. The officer jumped back into the passenger seat and Williams struck the passenger side of the cruiser with the car, the report said. Harold Williams said his son denies accelerating toward the cruiser.
Williams was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment, interfering with an officer, attempt to assault an officer, attempt to commit first-degree assault, failure to drive in proper lane, failure to obey stop sign, reckless driving, and disobeying the signal of an officer.
That case is pending.