Police, participants reflect on Wallingford protest

reporter photo

WALLINGFORD — Nearly a week has passed since the show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement drew hundreds of people to the uptown area.

The protest on June 5 was organized by a group of high school students, who declined to identify themselves publicly out of fear of retaliation.

They said in a statement Wednesday that they received positive feedback from people happy to see “a peaceful protest in their town that has previously been silent on the issue.”

“We were not expecting so many people,” they said, “but were extremely elated to see how many people came out that day to fight against the injustice in our country.”

About an hour into the protest, a few hundred people gathered at the police station at 135 N. Main St. where many chanted slogans and shouted at police. Eventually, some engaged in conversation with officers.

Wallingford resident Tyanna Housley acted as a liaison between the teenage organizers and the public and facilitated the protest.

“The fact that it remain peaceful was the biggest concern,” she said Monday, “so that right there was the biggest success.”

She said that the high turnout—at least 400 people by her estimate—shows “there’s definitely more good than bad in Wallingford,” although she would have liked to have seen officers take a knee when called on to by protesters.

“It would have been a nice symbol of solidarity,” she said. “It’s one thing to just be there, because that’s kind of their job.”

The group of organizers said they haven’t engaged in conversations with the police since the protest.

Police reaction

Police Chief William Wright said Wednesday that his main takeaway from the conversations with the protesters “has everything to do with communication and collaboration with the public.”

“We have received a few calls from people and a few letters asking for more of our time,” he said. “We are more than happy to oblige and we look forward to these conversations.”

Wright said that he heard some misconceptions about his department, such as how they haven’t sponsored a Citizen’s Police Academy.

Police began accepting applications in November for the program, which was slated to run in April and May, according to a press release.

Wright said there was “a large number of applications” but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the program. He added that the department plans to run the program in the fall depending on Gov. Ned Lamont’s orders regarding gatherings of people.

Other conversations centered on chokeholds and use of force by police.

“I’ve been here for 24 years and we have never trained on a chokehold tactic,” Wright said. “We expressly prohibit use of force to the neck and head.”

There are still instances of that happening despite the prohibition.

Wallingford Police Officer Joseph Smith served a two-week suspension in October 2018 after an internal investigation determined he used excessive force.

Smith struck then 25-year-old Gary Joseph King in the head while King was handcuffed as officers attempted to arrest him during a domestic violence incident four months earlier. King received a $275,000 settlement from the town in January less than a month before he died unexpectedly.

The town paid a $75,000 settlement in February to Traci Fittanto, who suffered a broken wrist during her arrest after a motor vehicle collision in 2016.

Former Wallingford Officer David Gallo reportedly pulled Fittanto onto the ground and then placed his foot and knee on her head, shoulders and mid-back while placing her in handcuffs. By the time Fittanto filed her lawsuit in 2019, Gallo had left Wallingford for a position in the Seymour Police Department.

Racial makeup of police

Like all law enforcement officers, Wallingford police are required to participate in a large and varied number of hours of training. Bias and implicit bias are a large part of that training, Wright said.

The racial makeup of the Wallingford police department, like the town population, is mostly white.

Of the department’s 75 sworn officers, 1.3 percent are Asian, 2.7 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic and 92 percent are white. Female officers of any race make up 9.3 percent.

In Wallingford, the population is 91.5 percent white, with 85.5 percent non-Hispanic or Latino white. The rest of the population is 7.4 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4.5 percent Asian, 1.7 percent black, according to the 2010 federal census.

He added that when the department needs new officers, the town advertises through “a number of different avenues” including the Meriden-Wallingford NAACP and the Spanish Community of Wallingford.

Wright also addressed criticism surrounding the investigation of the recent case of Nolvin Diaz, a 17-year-old whose body was pulled from Community Lake on May 3.

The death was ruled a homicide, and on May 11 police arrested Nolvin’s 21-year-old uncle, David Diaz-Perez, charging him with murder. Diaz-Perez has not entered a plea. His next court date is scheduled for June 23.

Wright said Wallingford police had been criticized for having a Meriden Spanish-speaking officer assist in the investigation, leading to allegations that Wallingford doesn’t have any Spanish-speaking officers.

“The reason for the assist was that very early on, the investigation led us to Meriden, hence the assistance,” Wright said. “Following that, Meriden command offered to have the officer stay with us in case another Meriden connection occurred. The officer would then be familiar with our case and could react to the information accordingly.”

He added that Wallingford has several officers who are Latino that speak Spanish, and others who are not Latino who also speak Spanish.

“In fact, we used our officers that are Latino to make the death notification to the Diaz family, as they only speak Spanish,” he said. “I’m grateful for their professionalism at a tragic time for the Diaz family.”

Changes to the department

The protest organizers said they believe that it should be mandatory for officers to wear body cameras and that an external review board for police action should be implemented.

Although officers don’t have them now, the police department is slated to receive $165,000 for body cams and a server upgrade in the next fiscal year, as per the budget adopted by the Town Council this week.

The funds are enough to buy 80 to 85 body cams, depending on bids, more than enough for the department’s 75 officers, Wright said in April. The proposed vendor, Watchguard, also provides the department's cruiser cams.

The organizers also encourage divesting money from police, which will have a $10 million budget in the upcoming year, and investing instead in the programs of Youth & Social Services, which will have a $450,000 budget, and Parks and Recreation, which will have an $818,000 budget.

Youth & Social Services and other social service contributions, including Columbus House, Masters Manna and the Spanish Community of Wallingford, have a combined $1.6 million budget.

They also commented on the $1.2 million funding gap that the Board of Education faced this budget season. Although that deficit was reduced by the BOE to $214,000, the Town Council cut an additional $100,000 as part of its budget revision.

“As students of the Wallingford public school system, we feel the effects of this deficit,” they said. “The vastly disproportionate money distribution is alarming and truly shows where the town’s priorities lay.”

Overall, the Board of Education received a $2.3 million increase in next fiscal year’s budget and comprises nearly 60 percent of the town budget.

In addition to potentially revising police procedures, future discussions about policing in town may include the status of the police headquarters and moving operations to a new facility.

The North Main Street building was constructed in 1920 as a state armory. In 1984, the town began renovations for police use and the department moved into the facility in early 1986.

Operations have outgrown the infrastructure, according to a report issued by Wright in January.

The women’s locker room has insufficient space and heating, the evidence storage area is full and the offices are cramped. There’s little privacy within the patrol room for people with confidential complaints. The IT needs of the department continue to expand.

“The police building project is in its infancy” Wright said, “and I can only say that we are exploring several sites that may accommodate a building.”

Note: The 2020-21 budget numbers have been updated from a previous version of this story.



Twitter: @LCTakores

"The fact that it remain peaceful was the biggest concern, so that right there was the biggest success."

-Tyanna Housley
Hundreds attend a silent protest rally in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in Wallingford on June 5. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
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