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Waterbury community gathers to discuss viral arrest video

By Patricia Del Rio

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     WATERBURY, Connecticut (WFSB) — A viral Tik Tok of Waterbury police officers in a violent struggle while arresting a man has prompted many questions in the community about use of force.

Monday night at a community forum, police, the NAACP, religious leaders and other community representatives gathered for a forum designed to give full transparency address questions and to build community trust.

The event was an opportunity for the Waterbury police chief to explain why force was used and to explain the suspect was heavily armed and reaching for his gun.

It also was an opportunity for the community to express their concerns about police relations.

It’s the video that has sparked heated conversation in Waterbury.

A February 2 incident of Waterbury police officers seen piling on a suspect and one officer punching the man in the face.

After the video spread on social media, the police department was quick to show transparency and release police body cam video and point out that they had been responding to a 911 call of a man with a gun.

“A member of the community called in and said that there was an individual at the bus stop, loading a gun. He was having some sort of domestic argument on the phone with what sounded to be a girlfriend,” said Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo.

At a rec center in Waterbury, Spagnola explained to the crowd that the suspect, James Thomas, had been wanted in connection with other shootings and in fact been reaching for a gun during his resisting arrest with police officers.

“He was armed. He had a loaded 9-millimeter handgun in his right front waistband with an extended 30 magazine round loaded in his backpack as well as an incredible amount of heroin and fentanyl both in bag form for street sale and in raw form,” Spagnolo said.

Spagnolo explained to the audience how the arrest unfolded.

“These officers attempted to take him into custody by grabbing his arms, they tried to manipulate his arms to the back of his body so they could handcuffs on him and they were unsuccessful. They were overpowered,” said Spagnolo.

Then it was time for audience questions. One person asked about the police punching Thomas in the face.

“Is it possible that we can have each one to respond by saying I agree with the punching or I disagree. Is that possible?” said Cliff Perron.

Spagnolo defended the action.

“In my 30 years as a police officer, I believe it was an appropriate use of force,” said Spagnolo. “We find that using a taser in these types of situations, especially in the winter months with somebody with a bulky coat is ineffective. He is reaching for his waistband; they can see the bulge in his waistband. It’s all on body camera. It was an appropriate response to the resistance that they met.”

Wendy Tyson Wood, President of the Waterbury NAACP, told the crowd she believes the officers’ actions were warranted.

“That is a bus stop in our city. Where I have seen women and children gather there to take the bus,” Wood said. “Although I do not agree with the method, I appreciate the diligence and the urgency and the consistency with which they applied what they needed to do to protect not only us, but that gentleman.”

Organizers promised to hold many more forums to come to continue the dialogue and conversation.

They also made it clear that anyone with concerns can always contact the chief directly, the NAACP, or anyone else they feel comfortable reaching out to. They say their concerns will be heard and addressed.

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