As the state law enforcement official charged with ruling whether police are justified in using deadly force, Robert Devlin is fully aware that his decisions are often going to land him in a highly-charged spotlight.
“I expect that’s part of the job here,” the former prosecutor and judge told CT Examiner in an interview Tuesday, eight months after being appointed the state’s first Inspector General. “I understand that’s kind of where I’m at in terms of the nature of the work and its potential to create some controversy.”
He was appointed by the state Criminal Justice Commission last year in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, which prompted a national call for stricter controls on how police subdue suspects, including by killing them.
Devlin, who in the early 1990s successfully prosecuted members of the Patriarca organized-crime family in the Hartford area, inherited ten pending deadly-force cases when he arrived at the offices of the state Division of Criminal Justice in Cheshire last October.
Three more cases have come in since then. Some on the list involve the death of suspects, while others resulted in non-lethal injuries despite police employing potentially deadly force.
All of them make headlines in the media.
But Devlin, a former state Superior Court and Appellate Court judge, said he is very focused on not allowing public sentiment to influence his decisions.
“George Floyd was certainly a watershed moment,” of national outrage, Devlin said. “But the social conclusions, or what the overall relationship between the police and the communities is – that’s not my role. My job is to take each of these incidents and really look at them carefully and write a report so the public can decide for themselves whether it makes sense or not.”
Asked for his overall assessment of how police use deadly force in the state, Devlin said “these incidents are rare.”
He pointed to what he described as “top-notch” ongoing training of officers by the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council, especially since 2020 when the state legislature passed police-accountability laws that it tweaked again earlier this year.
“They’re all over this and there’s accountability,” he said of the council, which includes a mix of police and civilians. “They’ve taken this obligation to educate officers on the nuances of this law and they’re doing a good job of it.”
His first two decisions cleared police of any wrongdoing.
One was in a Bridgeport incident in which an officer fatally shot a suspect to stop a knife attack in progress on another man, and the other a case in which a Naugatuck officer fired three shots into a car that had just rammed his cruiser, pushing it into the officer.
The suspect in that case was not hit by any of the bullets fired as he drove directly at the officer.
Devlin stresses that transparency and communication, both with community leaders and police, is crucial to prevent or ease any tensions arising from his “policing the police” rulings.
He and other members of his nine-member staff of inspectors and lawyers have met with church and community leaders and groups such as the NAACP statewide to hear their concerns and explain his authority.
“My perception is that there’s a mutual interest in creating good working relationships between our police departments and our community,” he said.
Devlin has taken a decidedly open approach to posting reports and even graphic police body-camera footage of incidents on his office’s website, contrary to the tight-lipped practices of many police departments in Connecticut.
He and his staff also meet regularly with the commanders of local police departments to explain evolving use-of-force laws and what should be done in the event of an incident that must be reported to his office.
“You don’t want to decide what to do at two in the morning when one of these things happens,” Devlin said. “So we’re trying to lay out that groundwork and at the same time hopefully establish some rapport,” with the department.
So far, he said, police seem receptive.
“I haven’t talked to every police officer in Connecticut, but we haven’t encountered any problems at all,” he said. “I think they understand we have a job to do.”
His recent decision to charge a state police trooper with manslaughter in the highly-publicized 2020 shooting death of a carjacking suspect armed with a knife in West Haven, however, led to allegations by the troopers’ union that he had overstepped his bounds.
Devlin ruled that the trooper acted criminally because “neither he nor any other person was in imminent danger of serious injury or death from a knife attack,” during the confrontation.
The union, which organized a support march at the trooper’s first court appearance, countered that the trooper “was forced to make a split-second decision during these dangerous and rapidly evolving circumstances,” and risked his own life “while trying to fulfill his oath of office to protect the lives of others.”
The trooper has pleaded not guilty and the case is awaiting trial.
Devlin said he would not comment specifically on the case, which also sparked courthouse demonstrations by the family and supporters of the 19-year-old man who was killed.
“It goes without saying that the office of Inspector General is a place that leads to controversy in these cases,” he said.” So I expect that’s part of the job – that there may be people who have different points of view and want to express that.”