The state’s attorney investigating the fatal Wethersfield, Conn. police shooting said she wants to go back to the beginning of the traffic stop and understand why police pulled over 18-year-old Anthony Jose “Chulo” Vega Cruz.
The biggest task for Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy is determining whether Officer Layau Eulizier Jr. was justified when he got out of his police car and shot into Vega Cruz’s windshield after a brief chase down Silas Deane Highway on April 20.
As part of that investigation, Hardy told Connecticut Public Radio that she is examining the full chain of events, including what led police to initiate the traffic stop. Connecticut State Police has been canvassing businesses along the highway in hopes of obtaining video that shows Vega Cruz in his car before the stop, “or some indication as to why he was being pulled over,” Hardy said in an email.
It’s a question that’s been on the minds of Vega Cruz’s family and activists who have been protesting with the rallying cry “Justice For Chulo.” On Wednesday, attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the family, suggested that the Wethersfield Police Department was racially profiling Vega Cruz, who was Hispanic.
“There has been an issue of people of color believing that they were unjustifiably and inexplicably pulled over by these police when they come through Wethersfield, Connecticut,” Crump said at a press conference Wednesday in front of the police department.
Wethersfield Police Chief James Cetran has previously said that the car was pulled over because it was suspicious -- the plates didn’t match the vehicle. When asked again Wednesday for the reasons behind the traffic stop, Cetran declined to comment “out of respect for the process.”
Elliot B. Spector, the attorney representing Eulizier, said it doesn’t matter why Vega Cruz was stopped -- but that it was legal. Another officer, Peter Salvatore, is the one who initially pulled Vega Cruz over.
“Not really sure why he did it, but certainly an officer could run the plates on a vehicle at any time that he wants to,” Spector said.
Police dashcam footage released last week began with Salvatore activating his sirens and pulling over Vega Cruz near a Goodyear tire shop along Silas Deane Highway. Vega Cruz eventually drove off. As rain fell, Eulizier joined the pursuit down the road and fired the fatal shots.
Vega Cruz died two days later from his wounds. A female passenger in his car was uninjured.
Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, said the Wethersfield Police Department has been a concern long before last month’s police shooting.
“Concerns around racial profiling ... and it's been escalating,” Esdaile said Wednesday. “They have created a climate for an incident like this to occur. And this chief has to be dealt with. This police force has to be dealt. … And the leadership of this particular town has to be dealt with because they knew that this was going on and they didn't deal with it.”
Ken Barone of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project (CTRP3), a collaborative that has been analyzing traffic stop data since 2015, said the Wethersfield Police Department stands out in the state for its significant racial disparities year after year.
“Over half of all the stops conducted in Wethersfield are of minority motorists, which is kind of shocking to begin with, right?” Barone said. “That’s a town that’s predominantly white.”
But the way the laws are written, “it doesn’t take officers very long to find a legal, technical violation of the law to be able to stop anybody,” he said Wednesday.
Cetran has pushed back against Barone’s findings, saying they hurt relations between police officers and the communities they serve.
Frankie Graziano contributed to this report.