Conn. cop on leave after shooting self in leg at restaurant

Veteran officer Juan Santiago will face no criminal charges for the accidental misfiring

By Frank Juliano and Michael P. Mayko
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

BRIDGEPORT — The veteran police officer who discharged a gun in a crowded restaurant Tuesday, shooting himself in the leg and blowing a bowling ball-sized hole through a nearby window, has been released from St. Vincent's Medical Center and placed on paid sick leave.

But Juan Santiago, the 55-year-old officer who heads the department's Police Hispanic Society, faces no criminal charges, nor does he face any violation of department rules and regulations, which has caused community activists to claim police use double standards to protect their own.

"This doesn't surprise me," said James Griffin, the city's former veterans' affairs administrator who now heads the Waterbury Center for Economic and Social Justice. "It's just another example of police covering for police."

Griffin, who once served as statewide NAACP president, said Police Chief Joseph Gaudett should have taken immediate action, even if it was just placing Santiago on administrative leave.

"Anybody other than a cop would be in big, big trouble," he said.

Lyle Hassan Jones, who has led marches against gun violence in Bridgeport as the head of Save Our Babies, agreed with Griffin.

"How can he not be charged with unlawful discharge or reckless endangerment?" Jones asked. "That's what would happen to you or me. That gun going off had to scare the customers to death. You think if I fired it I'd be walking out of that restaurant scot-free?"

But Jeff Matchett, executive director of AFSCME Council 15 of the Connecticut Council of Police — the union that represents 4,000 police officers from more than 60 state communities — maintained that firing a gun accidentally inside a restaurant would not result in an on-site arrest.

"That's not how I'd handle it, whether it was you, a cop or anyone," said Matchett, a retired Milford police officer. "I'd trace the gun, make sure the owner had a permit, interview witnesses."

Once that was completed, Matchett said he'd apply to the court for an arrest warrant before taking the person into custody.

"Oh, is that right?," countered John R. Williams, a veteran New Haven civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. "Try telling that to the president of the New Haven County Bar who was arrested last summer at a movie theater for having a gun that he had a permit for."

Williams said Santiago's actions represent "a classic case of reckless endangerment ... people's lives were put at risk. If he wasn't wearing a badge, he'd have been arrested."

Nearly a dozen police cruisers — with their sirens screaming, strobe lights flashing and tires squealing — skidded to a stop outside the Bagel King restaurant on upper Main Street around 9 a.m. Tuesday on reports that a police officer was down.

Inside, Santiago was bleeding from the leg. Shards of glass from the shattered window lay on the ground.

Moments earlier, Santiago was sitting at a table with Det. Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez had placed a borrowed .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol atop the table with the intention of returning it to its owner, a local doctor.

Loaning or borrowing a gun is not illegal as long as both parties have valid permits, Matchett said.

"You can borrow a gun to go target shooting or anything else as long as you have a legal permit to carry," Matchett said. "If you give a gun to someone who is not supposed to have it, that's different."

Santiago apparently picked up the gun, cocked it and pulled the trigger as it was pointing toward the floor. The bullet ricocheted upward, piercing Santiago's leg before shattering a nearby window.

"Nobody who has any experience with handling guns would ever point one and pull the trigger without being absolutely, positively certain it was not loaded," said Burton Weinstein, a civil rights lawyer and U.S. Army veteran.

"There were other officers in Bagel King at the time too, but I don't know if they were at the same table with Santiago and Gonzalez," said Bill Kaempffer, the police department's public information officer.

That, plus Bridgeport police investigating one its own, concerns Scott X. Esdaile, the statewide NAACP president. He called for the Connecticut State Police to investigate the incident.

"A civilian would have been arrested, and police have to be held to a higher standard," Esdaile said.

State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said his agency does investigate fatal shootings by local police officers, including the Nov. 25 fatal shooting during an apparent undercover gun buy on Boston Avenue. Four local officers have been placed on desk duty in the wake of that event.

But Vance said State Police are not involved in this probe.

Santiago was discharged from St. Vincent's about two hours after the apparent accidental shooting, said Chuck Paris, the department's union president.

"Right now, we are all concerned with his recovery," Paris said. "There is an investigation going on into what happened."

Gaudett said the city police department's Firearms Discharge Review Board and the Office of Internal Affairs, which reports directly to Mayor Bill Finch, are examining the circumstances.

"Once the investigations are completed, we will forward the reports to the Office of the State's Attorney for review," Gaudett said.

Kaempffer had no timetable for the investigations to be completed.

"What's there to investigate?" asked Jones, who has demonstrated against gun violence here. "It should be cut and dry."

Instead, both he and Weinstein believe the department is counting on delays to push the incident further away from public attention.

"Then they can sweep it under the rug," Jones said.

"I think they are gambling on the public forgetting about this," said Weinstein, who has spent decades suing the department on behalf of clients claiming various constitutional rights violations.

"Unless a detailed report on this incident is made public in a month, then the media and every decent citizen should demand its release," he said. "So far, this is but another illustration of how immune cops are from responsibility and liability."

Santiago is no stranger to controversy within the department.

As president of the Police Hispanic Society, Santiago in October demanded the resignation of Assistant Chief James Nardozzi for using a professor to conduct ethics training that included a lecture full of alleged racist statements and slurs.

In a letter to the mayor, Santiago complained that William McDonald, a John Jay College professor, used an ethnic slur repeatedly in referring to Hispanics while Nardozzi stood by quietly.

"Right now, we are not asking for an apology," Santiago said at the time. "We want him (Nardozzi) to resign or for the administration to fire him. How could (Nardozzi) not say anything?"

Finch asked Gaudett to review the incident and forward him a report. It was not known Wednesday night if that happened.

Copyright 2013 the Connecticut Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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