Why don’t we know more about the fatal police shooting of a bear in Newtown?

“Bobbi” in an undated photo.

“Bobbi” in an undated photo.

/Contributed

NEWTOWN — The secrecy surrounding the events that led up to the fatal police shooting of a bear in Newtown is another example of officers being shielded after alleged misbehavior, one expert says.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say in Connecticut...when there’s an appearance police employees did something wrong, their employees tend to protect them aggressively,” said Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has only said that the bear was shot on a private property last Thursday in Newtown, declining to release the location, the name of the off-duty Ridgefield officer involved or other details until a full report is complete.

Ridgefield police confirmed the officer has been placed on paid administrative leave and that the department has launched an internal investigation, but declined to provide the officer’s name or comment further.

“As with any investigation we must gather all of the facts prior to making public statements,” Ridgefield Chief Jeff Kreitz said in an email on Thursday. “At this time, we are patiently awaiting DEEP investigators to complete their investigation.”

The head of the Ridgefield police union and the chairman of the Ridgefield Police Commission could not be reached for comment.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi agreed with the chief’s decision not to release the officer’s name and declined to provide it himself, citing privacy concerns for the officer and his home.

“I just feel sad, sad for the bear, sad for the individual involved because I can tell you he’s one of the nicest persons I’ve ever met,” Marconi said. “There had to be a reason somewhere, but that’s a personal opinion. I haven’t heard that anywhere.”

The black bear shot last Thursday was well known in the Newtown area as Bobbi. Her two cubs have been sent to a wildlife rehabilitation center in New Hampshire, where they will trained to survive on their own before being released to back to Connecticut.

Marconi said he has talked to the Newtown first selectman and DEEP commissioner about the safety of the cubs, but doesn’t have any insight into the circumstances of the shooting.

“It’ll be investigated thoroughly,” he said. “It's unfortunate that it happened. None of us really know the circumstances to be honest with you. I’m sure that will be pieced together throughout the investigation, and at some point we will be made aware of it.”

Hearst Connecticut Media has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with Newtown police and DEEP for the police report, body-camera footage, 911 tapes and any audio tapes from DEEP’s emergency response line for the incident. A FOIA request related to the officer was also filed with Ridgefield police.

Ridgefield police said they are working to comply with the request. DEEP said it could take two weeks or more to provide the information, while Newtown police said they will work to fulfill the request, although information cannot be released until after DEEP’s investigation.

“Something like a 911 call, that’s immediately available,” Barrett said. “The body cam (footage) that’s immediately available, so from reading what’s been reported, I don’t understand what the hold-up is.”

These authorities should provide a specific reason under statute why these records cannot be made public right away, but it’s common for agencies to delay on providing this information, he said.

“They do this all the time because our open records law is toothless,” Barrett said. “It has no penalties for cops who violate the law or anyone else who violates the law, and as a result, what you’ll see is this nonsense.”

The difference between how DEEP has provided information on this shooting is perhaps seen in a September 2020 killing of a bear in Thomaston.

Within two days, the 26-year-old man was charged with was issued a summons for the illegal killing of a bear. DEEP said at the time that the man’s dog ran toward the bear and her cubs as they were foraging for food near his property line, and he shot in the direction of the bear to try to scare it off, killing it instead.

When DEEP announced the shooting of the Newtown bear last Friday, the agency only said that Environmental Conservation Police were investigating the killing. Ridgefield police confirmed one of their officers was “involved.” DEEP held press conferences on Monday and Tuesday where officials focused on the well-being of the two cubs and declined to provide details on the circumstances of the shooting.

The lack of transparency poses “serious” issues for democracy, Barrett said.

“No matter what police employees are out shooting, we should know about it,” he said.

He added that it leaves the impression that police involved in possible wrongdoing will be protected, which “signifies that there is a serious problem with police oversight.”