Report of the State's Attorney for the Judicial District of Tolland Concerning the Use of Deadly Force Resulting in the Death of Eric T. Habel
Introduction | Factual Findings | Medical Examiner Post Mortem & Forensic Examination of Evidence | Law Regarding the Use of Deadly Force by Police Officer | Findings and Conclusion
The following is a report concerning the tragic death of Eric T. Habel on August 16, 2005.
Initially, I would like to extend my condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Habel.
Secondly, I would like to acknowledge the assistance in this investigation from former Inspector Diane Davis-Morianos, and Inspector Bart Zamichiei of the Office of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Tolland. Their assistance and experience was invaluable to me in this investigation.
I would also like to acknowledge the high level of cooperation shown by the Coventry Police Department, the Willimantic Police Department, the Connecticut State Police, and the Office of the State’s Attorney in Tolland. Although it should be the norm, the level of cooperation displayed by these agencies under difficult and tragic circumstances was exceptional.
Finally, in terms of introduction, this report is written pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a. Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a provides that:
Whenever a police officer, in the performance of his duties, uses deadly physical force upon another person and such person dies as a result thereof, the Division of Criminal Justice shall cause an investigation to be made and shall have the responsibility of determining whether the use of deadly physical force by the peace officer was appropriate under 53a-22.
Shortly after the incident, the Office of the State’s Attorney, Judicial District of Tolland was notified, personnel responded, and the investigation was started. The State’s Attorney’s Office requested that the Connecticut State Police assist in this investigation. Detectives from the Connecticut State Police, Eastern District Major Crime Squad arrived shortly after the incident, processed the scene, recovered evidence, and interviewed witnesses. The Coventry Police Department and the Willimantic Police Department also contributed to this investigation. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety, Forensic Science Laboratory and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner provided valuable assistance in this case.
The investigation in this case is concluded, and this report is filed pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a(c).
On August 16, 2005, at approximately 10:35 p.m., the Tolland County Mutual Aid/Fire Service (TN) received a 911 emergency telephone call from 44 Wall Street, Coventry, Connecticut, the Sullivan residence. Although the telephone line was open, there was no response when the TN dispatcher posed questions to the caller. The dispatcher could hear what sounded like a domestic violence incident. The call was transferred to the Coventry Police Department. A dispatcher with the Coventry Police Department called the Sullivan residence at 44 Wall Street. Debra Sullivan, age 45, and owner of the residence reported that her boyfriend Eric T. Habel, age 46, had just cut her with a knife and assaulted her during a domestic argument that occurred in her residence. Ms. Sullivan reported that Mr. Habel was damaging her property as well. The Coventry Police Department dispatcher could hear what sounded like a violent, tumultuous incident occurring.
The Coventry Police Department dispatcher maintained the conversation with Ms. Sullivan and learned that Mr. Habel was armed with 2 knives and that she was injured. Ms. Sullivan was advised by the dispatcher to leave the residence if she could. Ms. Sullivan was able to leave the residence and awaited the arrival of police on the street in front of her house while continuing to talk to the dispatcher until a police officer arrived at the scene.
The Coventry Police Department dispatcher dispatched Coventry Police Officer Brian Flanagan, an 11-year veteran, to 44 Wall Street. Officer Flanagan had been backing up Coventry’s only other officer on duty that evening at a call regarding a suicidal male at a residence on the other side of town, approximately 6.5 miles away. As the suicidal male was being found and secured by Officer Flanagan and the other Coventry Police Officer, with the assistance from personnel from the Connecticut State Police, Troop-C, and the State Police Helicopter, Trooper I, Officer Flanagan left that scene and proceeded to 44 Wall Street.
The Coventry Police Department is an understaffed police department and because of this, they have entered into a police assistance agreement pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 7-277a with the Willimantic Police Department.
As Officer Flanagan was being dispatched to 44 Wall Street, the Coventry Police Department dispatcher was contacting the Willimantic Police Department to request assistance as back-up officer(s) to Officer Flanagan. The Willimantic Police Department dispatched Officer Ian Brown and Officer Ben Hoffman. At the time of this incident, Mr. Habel had 11 prior convictions, at least 4 of which were for domestic violence offenses. He had 2 cases pending in G.A. No. 19, Rockville, in the Judicial District of Tolland, and 2 cases pending in G.A. No. 11, Danielson, in the Judicial District of Windham. One pending case included an active protective order, which prohibited Mr. Habel from imposing any restraint on Ms. Sullivan, and prohibited him from threatening, harassing, stalking, assaulting, molesting, or sexually assaulting Ms. Sullivan. The order further prohibited Mr. Habel from any alcohol consumption and mandated alcohol and mental health treatment during the pendency of the case. Finally, and additionally, Mr. Habel was on probation at the time of this incident.
Coventry Police Officer Flanagan was familiar with the residence at 44 Wall Street, having been dispatched there previously for disputes between Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Habel, including at least one occasion in which Mr. Habel displayed a knife. Upon being briefed on the nature of the instant offense, Officer Flanagan instructed the Coventry Police dispatcher to have Ms. Sullivan leave the residence and meet him at the edge of the driveway, and it was upon Officer Flanagan’s request that the dispatcher instructed Ms. Sullivan to leave. Additionally, Officer Flanagan also instructed the dispatcher to pass along the nature of the complaint, and history of domestic violence at that residence, to the Willimantic Police Department so that their officers would take appropriate precautions. This information was relayed to the Willimantic Police Department.
Coventry Police Officer Flanagan arrived at 44 Wall Street and met Ms. Sullivan at the end of the driveway and assessed that she had injuries to her hands and neck. Although the injuries to her hands appeared to be made by a knife, they were not life threatening. The injury to her neck was not life threatening. Officer Flanagan provided safety to Ms. Sullivan by placing her in his cruiser until Mr. Habel could be found and secured. Emergency medical personnel were dispatched to treat of Ms. Sullivan’s injuries and told to arrive a short distance away so as to not jeopardize their safety. Officer Flanagan waited for the Willimantic officers to arrive before beginning the search for Mr. Habel.
Willimantic Police Officer Ian Brown, a 9 ½-year veteran with the Willimantic Police Department, and Willimantic Police Officer Benjamin Hoffman, a 3-year veteran with the Willimantic Police Department arrived at 44 Wall Street.
Coventry Officer Flanagan told Willimantic Police Officers Brown and Hoffman that Ms. Sullivan had been attacked with a knife, that Mr. Habel was still inside the residence, and that Mr. Habel had a history of domestic violence against Ms. Sullivan, including a prior arrest in which Mr. Habel, armed with a knife, had to be arrested at gunpoint.
Police Officers Flanagan, Brown, and Hoffman searched the interior of the residence and did not find Mr. Habel. There was a crawl space that was left unsearched, as it was too dangerous to search, and a canine unit was requested.
While awaiting the arrival of the canine unit, emergency medical personnel arrived, treated Ms. Sullivan for her injuries, and transported her to Windham Hospital for further treatment.
Trooper James O’Donnell of the Connecticut State Police, Troop-C, along with his canine partner, Arek, a 9-month old German Shepard were dispatched to assist the Coventry Police Department locate Mr. Habel. Trooper O’Donnell is a 6-year veteran with the Connecticut State Police. He and his canine arrived at 44 Wall Street at approximately 10:49 p.m. Additionally, the Connecticut State Police Helicopter, Trooper 1, was requested to help the Coventry Police locate Mr. Habel once it was released from the scene of the suicidal male on the other side of Coventry.
Coventry Officer Flanagan briefed Trooper O’Donnell on the relevant facts of the case when Trooper O’Donnell arrived at 44 Wall Street. As Coventry Officer Flanagan was briefing Trooper O’Donnell on the street at the front of the residence, a neighbor yelled to the police officers. Willimantic Officer Brown, who was standing closest to the neighbors, approached the neighbors who were located at the back corner of the adjacent residence. Willimantic Officer Brown stated that as he approached, he saw a white male to the rear of 44 Wall Street. Willimantic Officer Brown illuminated the male with his flashlight while also drawing his service weapon. Willimantic Officer Brown further stated that as he approached the male, later identified as Eric T. Habel, he saw that Mr. Habel was holding a knife to his own throat. Willimantic Officer Brown ordered Mr. Habel to show his hands and drop the knife. Mr. Habel retreated further into the backyard.
Willimantic Officer Brown gave chase. Willimantic Officer Hoffman, Coventry Officer Flanagan, and Trooper O’Donnell with his canine also pursued Mr. Habel into the backyard.
The backyard at 44 Wall Street is a multi-leveled, tiered backyard. The backyard has 3 levels, with a 2 foot, 10 inch high stonewall separating the initial level, level 1 from the next higher level, level 2. There is a 3 foot, 9-inch high stonewall separating level 2 from the next higher level, level 3. Level 3 is the highest level. There is a 5-foot wide set of stone steps (4 steps total) that lead from level 1 to level 2. There is a 5-foot wide set of stone steps (4 steps total) that lead from level 2 to level 3.
Mr. Habel retreated to the highest level of the tiered backyard, level 3. All four police officers proceeded up the staircases to level 3 in pursuit of Mr. Habel. With their backs to the ledge of level 3, the four police officers were facing Mr. Habel, who had his back to yet another stonewall and the wood line. The locations of the officers, if one were looking out from the residence at 44 Wall Street into the backyard, were as follows: Trooper O’Donnell with his canine was on the farthest left; Coventry Officer Flanagan was next; Willimantic Officer Brown was after that; and Willimantic Officer Hoffman was farthest on the right.
At this point, the time is approximately 11:32 p.m. All of the officers were ordering Mr. Habel to drop the knife. Willimantic Officers Brown and Hoffman and Coventry Officer Flanagan had their weapons drawn. Trooper O’Donnell had his canine at this side. Mr. Habel still had a knife to his throat.
Coventry Officer Flanagan stated that all of the officers were both ordering Mr. Habel to drop the knife, and trying to reason with him. Mr. Habel was belligerent and not obeying the orders that all of the officers were directing to Mr. Habel.
Trooper O’Donnell stated that he instructed Mr. Habel to drop the knife, and he continued to hold the knife to his throat. Trooper O’Donnell further stated that he informed Mr. Habel that if he did not drop the knife, he would deploy the dog, and that Mr. Habel responded by stating, “Go ahead and send the dog, I’ll slit my throat before he gets me.” Trooper O’Donnell, who was less than 20 feet away from Mr. Habel stated that he could detect an extremely strong odor of an alcoholic beverage from Mr. Habel. Also, Trooper O’Donnell states that Mr. Habel yelled, “Shoot me, just shoot me. I know you’ll be sorry in the morning, but shoot me.”
Willimantic Officer Hoffman stated that all of the police officers were trying to convince Mr. Habel to drop the knife, and that Mr. Habel responded by stating that he had gone too far this time, and “One of you are going to have to kill me and you will feel bad about it in the morning.”
Willimantic Officer Brown stated that all of the police officers were giving Mr. Habel commands to drop the knife, and that Mr. Habel refused to drop the knife and stated one of the police officers was going to have to kill him, and that we would not feel good about it in the morning. Willimantic Officer Brown further stated that Mr. Habel continued to hold the knife to his neck, and would not drop the knife, that “he had gone too far.” Willimantic Officer Brown attempted to reason with Mr. Habel by telling him that it would be better if he dropped the knife, that nobody wanted to harm him, and that they would get him help to work out his problems.
By this point, Trooper 1, the Connecticut State Police Helicopter had arrived, and was illuminating the backyard.
Coventry Officer Flanagan stated that Mr. Habel appeared to be scanning the four officers to determine which one he would attack. Coventry Officer Flanagan stated that he believed that Mr. Habel was going to lunge at one of them.
Mr. Habel advanced in a hostile manner towards the officers. He wielded the knife towards them. Willimantic Officers Brown and Hoffman retreated to the edge of the ledge of level 3. At this point, Trooper O’Donnell lunged towards Mr. Habel with his canine. As the canine got closer to Mr. Habel, Mr. Habel retreated back away from the officers.
The officers continued to try to persuade Mr. Habel to drop the knife, but he refused. Mr. Habel again lowered the knife, and with a slashing motion from side to side, advanced again and lunged at Willimantic Officers Brown and Hoffman. Willimantic Officer Hoffman took a step back and fell off the ledge of level 3. Again, Trooper O’Donnell with his canine advanced towards Mr. Habel. Willimantic Officer Brown took several steps back to avoid Mr. Habel and continued to tell him to drop the knife that was now pointed at him. Willimantic Officer Brown stated that he feared that if he retreated any further, he would fall off the ledge to level 3, which had approximately a 4-foot drop, and possibly drop his service weapon. Willimantic Officer Brown further stated that he feared for his life as Mr. Habel could have stabbed and killed him. As Mr. Habel approached him, Willimantic Officer Brown discharged his service weapon twice. His service weapon was a Colt, Combat Commander, .45 caliber pistol. The shots were fired at approximately 11:35 p.m.
Both shots hit Mr. Habel; one in the abdomen area, one in the collarbone area. Mr. Habel fell to the ground. The knife he was holding fell to the ground near him, sticking out of the ground. As Mr. Habel rolled from his chest to his back, he reached for the knife. Willimantic Officer Brown kicked the knife away. Trooper O’Donnell removed a second knife from Mr. Habel’s waistband and threw it a safe distance away. Coventry Officer Flanagan and Willimantic Officer Hoffman secured Mr. Habel with handcuffs. They then began to medically treat Mr. Habel at approximately 11:38 p.m. Trooper O’Donnell accompanied Willimantic Officer Brown to the front of the residence. Trooper O’Donnell then returned to the backyard and found that Mr. Habel was not breathing and had no pulse. Officer Flanagan then retrieved some medical equipment from his cruiser, and he and Trooper O’Donnell performed CPR on Mr. Habel until emergency medical personnel arrived on the scene.
Mr. Habel was transported to Windham Hospital where life-saving efforts continued. Those efforts were unsuccessful, and Mr. Habel was pronounced dead at 12:49 a.m., August 17, 2005.
Richard Lewis and Willie Labbe, two citizens who reside on Wall Street, Coventry, saw and/or heard much of what transpired between Mr. Habel and the four police officers in the backyard at 44 Wall Street.
Medical Examiner Post Mortem Report and Forensic Examination of Evidence
A. Medical Examiner Post Mortem Report
Mr. Habel was transported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where Dr.
Ira Kanfer, Associate Medical Examiner performed a post mortem examination. The postmortem examination occurred at approximately 9:24 a.m. on August 17, 2005.
Dr. Kanfer noted two gunshot wounds. One gunshot wound was to Mr. Habel’s chest. This bullet passed through the right lung, the liver, and the abdominal aorta and came to rest in lumbar vertebrae. The second gunshot wound was to Mr. Habel’s abdomen. This bullet passed through multiple loops of the small intestine and came to rest in the psoas muscle.
Mr. Habel’s blood/alcohol level at the time of his death was .17%.
Cause of death was determined as multiple gunshot wounds.
B. Forensic Examination of Evidence
Dr. Kanfer removed from Mr. Habel’s body 2 large caliber, copper-jacketed bullets.
These bullets were seized by detectives from the Connecticut State Police and transported to the Department of Public Safety, Forensic Science Laboratory for analysis and comparison with other evidence that was seized. Detectives from the Connecticut State Police also seized from the scene at 44 Wall Street, among many pieces of evidence, two Federal Brand, .45 +P shell casings and two knives. Additionally, the detectives seized from Willimantic Officer Ian Brown, his service weapon, the Colt, Combat Commander, .45 caliber pistol, which was also sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory.
An analysis of the weapon and its remaining ammunition showed that two rounds were
discharged. Additionally, the two bullets recovered from the body of Mr. Habel following the postmortem examination were compared to the weapon seized from Willimantic Officer Brown. The Forensic Science Laboratory determined that the two bullets recovered from the body of Eric T. Habel were fired from the service weapon of Willimantic Police Officer Ian Brown.
Law Regarding Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers
The purpose of this investigation is to determine whether the use of deadly force by Officer Ian Brown was appropriate under Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22.
Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(c) provides:
“A Peace Officer. . . is justified in using deadly physical force upon another person for the purposes specified in Subsection (b) of this section only when he reasonably believes such to be necessary to: (1) Defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force; or (2) Effect an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he reasonably believes has committed or attempted to commit a felony which involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury and if, where feasible, he has given warning of his intent to use deadly physical force.”
Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(b) provides:
“Except as provided by subsection (a) of this Section, a Peace Officer. . . is justified in using physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonable believes such to be necessary to: (1) Effect an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he reasonably believes to have committed an offense, unless he knows that the arrest or custody is unauthorized; or (2) Defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of physical force while attempting to effect an arrest or while preventing or attempting to prevent an escape.”
Consequently, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(c)(1), a police officer may use deadly force when he reasonably believes the use of such force is necessary to defend himself from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force. The test is both subjective and objective. First, the officer must believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to defend himself or another from the imminent use of deadly physical force. Second, that belief must be objectively reasonable. See State v. Prioleau, 235 Conn. 274(1995).
The test is not whether it was in fact necessary for the officer to use deadly physical force in order to defend against the imminent use of deadly physical force. The test is whether the officer believed such to be the case, and whether such belief was objectively reasonable, based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time the decision to use deadly force was made. See State v. Silveira, 198 Conn 454 (1986); State v. Adams, 52 Conn. App. 643 (1999).
The United States Supreme Court explained this test in detail in a civil rights action.
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight. . . The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance to the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments---in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving---about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S. CT 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989).
Findings and Conclusion
Based upon a review of all of the information available, including all of the police reports, witness statements, Medical Examiner’s Post Mortem report, and reports from the Department of Public Safety, Forensic Science Laboratory, and review of the physical evidence recovered from the scene, as well as a review of the scene itself, it is found that Willimantic Police Officer Ian Brown responded to 44 Wall Street in the town of Coventry to assist the Coventry Police Department with an active domestic violence incident. Eric T. Habel, under the influence of alcohol, assaulted his girlfriend with a knife and fled into the backyard armed with two knives.
Mr. Habel was threatening to harm himself. Four police officers, including Willimantic Officer Brown, surrounded Mr. Habel and tried to both order and persuade Mr. Habel to drop the knife. All of these efforts were unsuccessful. Mr. Habel advanced on the officers in a hostile manner, displaying the knife outward towards Willimantic Officer Brown. Because of the terrain, Officer Brown did not have the option of further retreat. By advancing, Mr. Habel gave Officer Brown only one option to defend himself. It was entirely reasonable for Willimantic Officer Brown to believe that deadly physical force was about to be inflicted upon him. Willimantic Officer Brown feared for his life and discharged his weapon twice. Both shots struck Mr. Habel, resulting tragically in his death.
Therefore, based upon the facts as set forth in this investigation, Willimantic Officer Ian Brown reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to defend himself from the imminent use of deadly physical force. The use of deadly force by Willimantic Officer Brown was appropriate under Connecticut General Statutes Section 53-22.
Accordingly, the Division of Criminal Justice will take no further action.
Matthew C. Gedansky
Judicial District of Tolland
January 16, 2007