BRIDGEPORT – The state Inspector General has ruled that a city police officer was justified in firing a shot into a car that injured its driver last year during a chaotic incident sparked by the earlier “assassination” of two known gang members.
Officer Carlos Vazquez fired a single .45-caliber bullet that hit driver Dennis Lee Waiters Jr. in his left thigh after the car had rammed into three unmarked police vehicles and a private passenger car on June 15, 2021.
Waiters’ car had sped toward Vazquez in an attempt to escape, causing the officer to fear for his life, Inspector General Robert Devlin ruled.
“Vazquez fired one shot to prevent the vehicle from running him over,” Devlin wrote in his 64-page report released late last week. “The credible evidence further supports Officer Vazquez’s stated belief that discharging his firearm at the oncoming Chrysler was the only readily available feasible means to defend himself from the threat that he faced.”
After being struck by the bullet, Waiters’ car crashed into a utility pole.
Police said they subsequently found a loaded pistol in the car that belonged to a passenger who “was intent on shooting someone” that night in retaliation for two killings in the previous 24 hours.
That man, Lamain Heard, bolted from the car and ran off but was later captured.
The incident closely followed the shooting deaths of Shamar Swinton, 39, and 21-year-old Dha’moni Lockhart, who police described as members of a gang connected to the Greene Homes Federal Housing Complex.
They were each gunned down while riding in cars in the city.
“The circumstances surrounding the deaths of both men strongly suggested that they had been assassinated,” Devlin wrote.
On the night of the incident involving Waiters, more than 100 people had gathered at the Greene complex to mourn them.
Officers with the Bridgeport Police Task Force, FBI Safe Streets Task Force, and the Connecticut State Police Statewide Urban Violent Crime Task Force were secretly monitoring the gathering after receiving information that “many in the group were armed and intended to retaliate against gang members affiliated with the North End of Bridgeport whom they believed responsible for the deaths of Swinton and Lockhart,” according to Devlin’s report.
Specific information was obtained that Heard, a known gang member and convicted felon, was in possession of a gun and was intent on shooting someone.
Deciding that it was too risky to apprehend Heard at the gathering, police waited until he left in the car driven by Waiters, which they surrounded with police-vehicle lights and sirens engaged while it was at a stoplight near a Route 8 onramp.
“The officers’ intent was to close all avenues of escape and avoid a high-speed chase,” Devlin said in the report.
Waiters, however, backed the car into an unmarked police vehicle and a private passenger car before accelerating forward toward Vasquez and striking other police vehicles as he attempted to squeeze between them.
Another officer sustained a hairline fracture to his hand in the collision when he was pinned between the open door and the body of his vehicle.
Vazquez fired the shot into the driver’s door just below the door handle, and it immediately crashed into another police vehicle before hitting the utility pole, causing heavy damage to its front end and deploying its airbags.
In a statement to investigators, Vazquez said he fired at the car while “fearing that my life and the lives of others in the area, due to the reckless attempt to escape, were now in immediate danger of serious physical injury or death.”
Heard then jumped out and ran. Waiters stepped out of the car with blood visibly seeping through his pants, and refused to speak to officers.
Heard was soon caught by officers near the Sazon Y Mambo restaurant on Main Street and was subdued by the use of a Taser stun gun when he refused to surrender.
A .40-caliber semiautomatic gun was found on the floor of the car’s front passenger seat, which later led to Heard being charged with federal weapons violations.
Waiters was taken to a hospital, where he told police that he was upset over the death of Lockhart, who he described as his cousin.
When officers surrounded his car, Waiters told police, “he had all he could do to not think about his cousin being killed the night before, directly above him on Route 8,” and that “he was scared and attempted to get away and slammed into a pole.”
Waiters also told police he had taken Fentanyl before the incident.
Devlin, a former federal prosecutor and state judge, was appointed by the state Criminal Justice Commission last October to investigate all cases of police use of deadly force in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
The Vazquez case is the fourth time he has cleared police of any wrongdoing since taking office.
He also has charged a state police trooper with manslaughter in the 2020 shooting death of a carjacking suspect armed with a knife in West Haven, ruling 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.