Two Wethersfield, Conn. Officers Involved In Fatal Shooting Made More Traffic Stops Than Most
In the 15 months before he pulled over Anthony Jose “Chulo” Vega Cruz, Wethersfield police officer Peter Salvatore made over 320 traffic stops — the third highest in a department that already stands out for how often it pulls over people of color.
But while Salvatore initiated the stop that left the 18-year-old dead, it was another officer, Layau Eulizier Jr., who fired the fatal shots on April 20. Eulizier had been employed by the Wethersfield Police Department for roughly eight months. In that short time, Eulizier logged 266 traffic stops — more than most Wethersfield officers make in an entire year, according to a new data analysis by Connecticut Public Radio.
As the state continues to investigate whether Eulizier was justified in shooting Vega Cruz, it’s also looking into why Salvatore pulled him over to begin with. After the incident, Wethersfield police Chief James Cetran explained the stop to a television reporter, saying “the plates did not match the car … The officer thought it was a stolen car.”
More recently, Cetran said he’s been asked by investigators not to talk specifically about the case of Vega Cruz or the two officers involved. But, in an interview, Cetran did argue that aggressive policing could benefit the public.
“We're looking for officers to do their job and to stop law violators so that the accident rates come down and crime rates come down,” Cetran said. “That's what we want them to do.”
Law enforcement experts who reviewed Connecticut Public Radio's findings say they highlight a high volume of stops in a department that has been scrutinized for racial disparities in traffic stops.
“Whether or not it’s racial profiling is an important question,” said Mike Lawlor, who served as undersecretary for criminal justice policy under former Gov. Dannel Malloy. “But one thing it definitely is — it’s unusually high numbers.”
Making 'Good Stops'
Salvatore, the officer who initiated the stop, referred an interview request to his lawyer, Thomas Hatfield, who declined to comment.
But attorney Elliot B. Spector, a former Hartford police officer, represents Eulizier — and he said police should pull over drivers who break the law and that some officers are assigned to areas where they’ll have more opportunity to do so.
“Some officers ... are just more active than other officers,” Spector said. “As long as the motor vehicle stops are good stops, then you're showing activity and that’s a plus.”
Connecticut Public Radio found many of Eulizier’s stops were for equipment-related offenses. More than one in five of his traffic stops were for defective lights, a rate that is double the town average from January 2018 through March of this year.
“It targets the poor,” said John DeCarlo, a former Branford police chief who now teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “Very often poor people can’t afford to fix those equipment violations and if you have ‘x’ number of dollars and you need groceries or you need to fix your tail light, what are you going to buy?”
Before he worked in Wethersfield, Eulizier was an officer in Manchester, Conn. And there, too, he made a practice of pulling over a lot of motorists, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
As an officer in training in 2015, Eulizier was commended by superiors for his traffic patrol.
“He conducted numerous motor vehicle stops, and would point out other violations while driving around,” the report read. “He seems to really enjoy the job and wants to get involved.”
In another evaluation from 2015, the department noted that Eulizier maintained “aggressive patrol … especially in regard to traffic stops.”
But supervisors in Manchester also expressed concern about Eulizier’s performance multiple times during his time with the department — including for one traffic stop in which Eulizier approached a stopped car and attempted to open the driver’s door with his gun drawn. A training sergeant deemed some of his tactics “inappropriate.”
“Eulizier’s handgun comes within inches of entering the driver’s compartment where the driver is sitting,” a December 2017 memo said. “This action creates an unnecessary risk of the officer losing control of his firearm ...”
The Wethersfield Data
Since 2013, the state has analyzed traffic stop data provided by more than 100 police agencies across Connecticut because of a state racial profiling law, which mandates officers report data on who gets pulled over and why.
Wethersfield has consistently been identified as having significant racial disparities in their stop data. That’s according to Ken Barone, an analyst at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, which examines police data from across the state.
“They are the only one out of 107 with disparities that consistently keep appearing in the dataset,” Barone said.
Lawlor, the state’s former undersecretary for criminal justice policy, said Wethersfield also stands out for its history of pushing back against Barone’s work.
“Unlike most of the other departments that were identified as outliers, the Wethersfield Police Department seemed to want to argue with the analysis,” said Lawlor, now an associate professor in the criminal justice department of the University of New Haven. “They didn’t take it for what it was worth.”
Using the state’s data and information from a public records request to the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut Public Radio found that in the 15 months before the shooting of Vega Cruz, more than half of the drivers pulled over by Salvatore and Eulizier were identified as minorities: Hispanic, black, or Asian.
That’s in line with the Wethersfield Police Department’s traffic stops. From January 2018 through March 2019, state data show more than 50% of drivers pulled over by town police were minorities.
“Which is kind of shocking to begin with, right?” Barone said. “That’s a town that’s predominantly white.”
Location also plays a role. According to Wethersfield police, Vega Cruz was shot “in the area” of Silas Deane Highway and Maple Street, about two miles down the highway from the Hartford border.
State data show the highway — a heavily-traveled commercial strip frequented by commuters and shoppers — was listed as a location for nearly 40% of traffic stops conducted by Wethersfield Police during that time frame.
Officers Salvatore and Eulizier were a bit above that number, logging about 46% and 43% of their stops, respectively, on that highway.
Cetran, the Wethersfield police chief who is also president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, has long disagreed with some of the methodology Barone uses in his report. He makes the case that, though Wethersfield may be predominantly white, the people who drive through the town are not. And he rejects the suggestion that his department racially profiles drivers.
“We don't have any officers here that are racially profiling. If I did, I'd fire him,” Cetran said. “I don't want the grief for something like that.”
Spector, Eulizier’s attorney, dismissed the notion of racial profiling in policing.
“People think that they are being stopped solely because of their race or ethnicity and that this is something that a lot of police officers do — that it happens frequently and that's why they have these fears,” Spector said. “But it's [pretty] much a myth.”
Ben Crump says otherwise. He’s a lawyer representing Vega Cruz’s family.
“I think from the citizenry standpoint, for the black and Hispanic community in that part of Connecticut, it is no question in their mind that they're being racially profiled,” Crump said Wednesday. “And they all point to ‘Chulo’ Vega’s death as being a result of racial profiling, simple and plain.”
Traffic Stops And The Law
The state’s motor vehicle laws are so broadly written, Barone said, that police have a lot of leeway to pull people over.
“It's likely that there was a legal justification for pulling the car over,” Barone said of Officer Salvatore's stop of Vega Cruz. “Because it's very easy to get that legal justification.”
Melvin Medina, director of public policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Connecticut, said that’s why he’s not surprised by Connecticut Public Radio’s findings. He argued that Wethersfield Police is conducting a "suburban version of stop and frisk" through its heavy traffic enforcement.
“In many ways, you can get a violation for practically anything,” Medina said. “From driving through a yellow light, to dangling an air freshener on your rearview mirror, to having a license plate frame. And because it’s so broad in that sense, it can serve as a dragnet. ... It gives pretext to stop essentially any car.”
Spector, Eulizier’s lawyer, argued that the fatal encounter with Vega Cruz would not have escalated had the 18-year-old “complied.”
“Certainly an officer could run the plates on a vehicle at any time that he wants to,” Spector said. “He doesn't need a legal standard to do that. ... The stop was a legal stop and certainly if Mr. Cruz had complied with the officer and shown his paperwork, he probably would have gotten a ticket and been on his way.”
As the investigation continues and it becomes clearer what led to the initial stop, Lawlor said it’s exactly this type of discussion that makes the state’s analysis of police data even more important.
“This is one of the reasons people are advocating for every department to adopt these best practices because they work,” Lawlor said. “They reduce crime and they promote a confidence between the community – especially communities of color – and law enforcement. Because if you lose that two-way confidence, then you’re going to end up with more crime.”
Connecticut Public Radio Reporter Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this report.
Connecticut Public Radio’s analysis is based on state data, collected since 2013 as the result of the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act. Traffic stops and associated officers are represented in the data via a numerical identification number. Data was linked to individual Wethersfield officers via a Freedom of Information Act request. Connecticut Public Radio is making the data and computer code used for this project available for re-use and your own analysis.