PD body camera footage shows Ridgefield cop explaining why he shot bear on his Newtown property

NEWTOWN — In the hour or so after an off-duty Ridgefield cop shot a beloved black bear, officers from multiple law enforcement agencies descended on his Newtown property to examine the animal and question the homeowner about why he killed the bear with his AR-15 rifle.

Body camera videos of the May 12 incident obtained from Newtown Police Department show the beginnings of the investigation — one that became heavily scrutinized throughout the region before and after authorities cleared Sgt. Lawrence Clarke of any wrongdoing in the shooting.

The majority of the more than two hours of footage taken by three officers from the Newtown Police Department does not include audio, per department policy. The officers responded to the scene after Clarke’s neighbor called the local department to report the bear’s two cubs had climbed into a tree in her backyard.

Officers from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Environmental Conservation were not wearing body cameras. These EnCon officers were not required to until July 1, and the agency was still outfitting officers with the equipment when the incident occurred, according to a DEEP spokesperson.

The footage obtained from Newtown police includes Clarke explaining where and why he shot the bear, and foreshadows the concern community members would have about the animal’s two young cubs in the following days. A Ridgefield police captain also responded to the scene.

‘That is where I screwed up’

Standing barefoot near his chicken coop, Clarke recounts to EnCon Officer Jordan Jacquo how he shot the bear, the videos show.

“She’s pouncing and she starts to take two steps toward me, that’s when I take my first shot,” says Clarke in the footage obtained from Newtown police officer Michael McGowan’s body camera. “Again, I am leading up to the story about how aggressive she has been the last three days, you know.”

The investigation found Clarke shot the bear a total of seven times but only one shell casing would be recovered. Authorities later determined the shooting was justified because they said Clarke had feared the safety of his family, himself and his livestock. Bears are protected in Connecticut, and there’s no right to kill a bear.

“You picked up all your brass?” McGowan asks Clarke, referring to the shell casings he removed from the scene after firing.

“That is where I screwed up,” Clarke says.

“I should know better as a sergeant, I usually think human beings, you know what I mean, I am not thinking about a bear so I just pick up my…they are right there,” he adds pointing to a nearby picnic table where the shell casings were laid out.

“He said I shouldn’t have picked them up and he is right, you know. With an animal I am not thinking that way, you know what I am saying?” Clarke tells McGowan.

In a statement, a DEEP spokesperson said the agency’s “EnCon Officers investigating this incident did not believe that the homeowner’s behavior and actions affected the investigation in this instance. They were reasonable and explained in the investigation.”

“Mr. Clarke explained to officers that after years of firearm training, he was conditioned to pick up brass (spent shell casings) and when he realized that he should not have, instead of putting them back he acknowledged the mistake and told the investigating officers,” the statement added. “The State’s Attorney’s Office, ultimately responsible for the prosecution, did not find anything in this action that would result in filing of charges”.

Concern for the bears

Newtown’s animal control officer also responded to Clarke’s residence. By that time, two EnCon officers were already conducting their investigation, and the body camera worn by Newtown police officer Felicia Figol captures an interaction between one of the EnCon officers, Sgt. Sean Buckley, and the animal control officer.

“Thanks for coming, we are good, we got it, you are all set,” Buckley says to the animal control officer after she expressed concern over the orphaned cubs. “You are good, we don’t need you.”

Walking toward Clarke’s house, Buckley tells another Newtown officer, “she does not need to be here and get involved in my case.”

Asked again about the bear cubs, Buckley says, “we are hoping they are old enough to survive, they are right on the cusp.”

In the following days, DEEP insisted the cubs could make it on their own, despite outcry from the public. The agency then reversed course and sent the bears to a rehabilitation facility in New Hampshire when officials became worried that community members would feed the cubs.

While the video shows Buckley taking an active role in the investigation, it would be his colleague, Jordan Jacquo, who would sign the initial incident report.

McGowan later took a statement from Clarke’s neighbor who reported the bear cubs were in a tree outside her home. The neighbor said she couldn’t comment on whether the killing of the bear was justified but expressed concern for the bear cubs and said she and her husband had seen the bear earlier in the day and enjoyed the encounter from a safe distance, adding that she was “a little upset.”

“I know, I can only imagine, believe it or not, I hate that too, okay?” McGowan says before returning to his cruiser and driving a short distance to Clarke’s house. The remainder of the video captured by his body cam does not include audio.

Ridgefield captain on scene

Video taken by a body camera belonging to a third Newtown police officer, Sgt. Douglas Wisentaner, shows Clarke’s wife checking on the chickens in the coop and chatting with Wisentaner.

Minutes later, an officer from the Ridgefield Police Department arrives on scene and shares a warm greeting with Clarke’s wife who asks, “when was the last time? Bryan’s retirement party?”

Responding to questions by email, Ridgefield Police Chief Jeff Kreitz confirmed Capt. Nicholas Fowler, the department’s uniform division commander, went to Clarke’s home “after being made aware of an incident/investigation involving one of our officers. He responded to provide assistance if necessary.”

Fowler is later seen in the video speaking with the Newtown officers on scene before having a one-on-one conversation with Buckley as the two walked in the area where Clarke said he shot the bear.

Ridgefield police did not have jurisdiction in the matter, Kreitz clarified, but he said, “it is normal procedure to have a commanding officer respond.” Clarke was put on paid administrative leave over the course of the investigation into the shooting. The Ridgefield Police Department conducted its own internal investigation, but Kreitz said Captain Fowler was not sent to the scene as part of that internal investigation.

“[H]owever, by having him respond he was able to determine if there were any violations of department policy, which there was not,” Kreitz said.