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Hartford Courant - FAMILIES FILE SUIT OVER POLICE SHOOTINGS

by MATT BURGARD
Posted on November 7, 2006

The families of two young Hartford men who were shot last year in a confrontation with a city police officer -- one fatally -- have filed a federal lawsuit against the city, a former police chief and the officer who fired the shots.

The 47-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Hartford, seeks unspecified damages for the May 2005 shooting of Jashon Bryant, 18, who died in the incident, and Brandon Henry, now 23, who recovered after being shot in the chest.

Bryant and Henry were sitting in a parked car next to a convenience store in the city's North End last year when they were confronted by Officer Robert Lawlor, who later told investigators he thought he saw Bryant holding a gun.

As Lawlor ordered the two men to freeze, Henry put the car in gear and drove away from Lawlor, who was standing by the passenger side of the car, according to reports contained in a grand jury investigation of the shooting. Lawlor then fired five times, striking Bryant twice in the back of the head and Henry in the chest, reports say.

Bryant died instantly, while Henry managed to continue driving several blocks before crashing and running away. He was found several minutes later by pursuing officers, and he was arrested several days later after police found drugs under the seat of the car.

Yet despite an extensive search of the car and the surrounding area, police never found the gun that Lawlor claimed he saw Bryant holding.

The suit, filed last month, claims Bryant's and Henry's civil rights were violated.

Lawlor, a 17-year veteran of the force, had been working as part of an anti-gun task force and was paired that night with a federal agent from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The agent later told investigators he never saw Bryant holding a gun and never considered himself in danger.

The grand jury investigation concluded earlier this year that the shooting was not justified, and Lawlor was arrested in June on charges of manslaughter and assault. He is now awaiting trial, and is on unpaid suspension from the police force pending the outcome of the case.

The lawsuit filed by the families of Bryant and Henry claim the shooting was "overreactive, aggressive, loud, unlawful, inflammatory, unsafe and contrary to what good police practice dictated under the circumstances."

Jefferson Jelly, Bryant's family's lawyer, and A. Paul Spinella, Henry's lawyer, said in a press release Monday that longstanding divisions between the police department and many residents of the North End cannot be overcome unless officers such as Lawlor are held accountable.

"We have repeatedly heard calls for an alliance between the citizens in the neighborhoods and the police on the street working together to stamp out violence," the statement said. "There can be no such alliance if such violence and unlawful behavior by the police is tolerated."

The case has taken on racial overtones after Bryant's father, Keith Thomas, who is black, loudly confronted Lawlor, who is white, recently in front of Superior Court in Hartford. After calling Lawlor a "punk ass white boy," Thomas was arrested by state police and charged with breach of peace and intimidation based on bigotry. That case is now pending.

Thomas and other members of Bryant's family have criticized the treatment Lawlor has received since his arrest, claiming the $50,000 bail that was set after his arrest was unusually low. Lawlor posted the bail, and is now working a part-time job as the case heads to trial.

Neither Lawlor nor his attorney, Michael Georgetti, was available to comment on the lawsuit Monday. Sarah Barr, a spokeswoman for the city, said the city has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Besides claiming the reckless conduct on Lawlor's part, the lawsuit claims the city and the police department contributed to the shooting through poor training practices and lax guidelines on the use of force.

The lawsuit notes that the federal agent assigned to work with Lawlor that night was a rookie with little familiarity with Hartford, claiming the task force was poorly conceived and staffed. It also notes that Lawlor had been assigned to the task force despite being demoted in 2002 for reasons including "overzealousness" in pursuing suspects.