West Haven police officer back on duty after investigation into use of excessive force

In this image from video, West Haven police officer Joseph Riehl, left, assisted by two other officers, takes down Albert Stober, a homeless man, while trying to subdue Stober and take him into custody on Jan. 29, 2018.

In this image from video, West Haven police officer Joseph Riehl, left, assisted by two other officers, takes down Albert Stober, a homeless man, while trying to subdue Stober and take him into custody on Jan. 29, 2018.

Police officer Joseph Riehl is back on active duty after an internal affairs investigation into allegations that he used excessive force in January on a handcuffed, albeit combative, homeless and apparently intoxicated suspect.

The Board of Police Commissioners found, based on records that included an internal affairs investigation report, that the force Riehl used to subdue arrestee Albert Stober in a Police Department sally port while removing him from a police SUV on Jan. 29 was justified and appropriate.

That includes what Riehl termed a “leg sweep” to knock Stober down — which resulted in him striking his head on the sally port’s concrete floor, opening up a cut in his forehead.

The vote finding Riehl’s use of force justified was unanimous. In doing so, the board overruled the recommendation of Chief of Police John Karajanis Jr.

Karajanis had told Riehl in an April 27 letter obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that “I do not believe the amount of force used was necessary or reasonable under the circumstances,” records show.

“We have a contentious use of force, a pattern of poor judgement, a credibility problem, vehicle operation that violates terms of discipline,” Karajanis wrote in another memo.

“In light of this, I will be forwarding the matter to the (Board of Police Commissioners) for their review with my recommendation that termination be strongly considered,” Karajanis wrote.

The chief wondered, based on Riehl’s report of the Stober case, “why you did not have him medically evaluated before you decided to transport him to police lock-up,” one document shows.

Karajanis also pointed to “a potential credibility problem” given inconsistencies in two interviews Riehl gave to investigators.

He also mentioned “two documented incidents regarding operation of your vehicle that violate a previous disciplinary agreement” and various “examples of poor judgement and questionable actions” in Riehl’s disciplinary history.

That history, Karajanis said in another memo, includes driving the wrong way on a one-way street and four instances of “neglect of duty” — for striking a curb with a vehicle, for damaging a police vehicle by driving away from a gas pump without removing the pump nozzle, for being at fault in a motor vehicle accident and for backing into a pole.

One Feb. 6, 2017, accident on Boston Post Road just west of Fairfax Street caused $5,425 in damage, records show.

Police records show Riehl twice was found, while off duty, to have consumed 10 or more alcoholic beverages while in possession of a firearm, had been cited for firing his gun from a moving car and, at one point, was found to have put a gun to his head.

Riehl’s record also shows he has been recognized twice for meritorious service since beginning work as a West Haven police officer on Oct. 21, 2015 — once for a series of proactive measures he took over a period of time and once for assisting Orange police to extricate a driver from a vehicle involved in a serious accident on Meloy Road.

He previously was involved in two other “use of force” incidents. In both cases it was later found that his use of force was justified, records show.

He also was made to take a driving course, which he completed on Jan. 11, records show.

Riehl’s union attorney, Chip Walsh, said Riehl was justified in the latest case.

“Officer Riehl did what was necessary in a situation, in the sally port, when he had a combative suspect who had repeatedly told him and his partner that he had AIDS and wanted to give it to them ... and continually tried to bite Officer Riehl,” Walsh said.

“He actually had his teeth on Officer Riehl at that time,” Walsh said. The internal affairs investigators spoke to “at least three” outside experts who found that Riehl’s actions were justified, he said.

“This is a good cop, a very good cop, who is respected by his fellow officers for the work he does, and I think anyone trying to paint him as a liability ... doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Walsh said. “This is a good cop ... and his brother and sister officers support him 114 percent.”

The internal affairs report and police reports on the Jan. 29 incident, which began on a sidewalk outside 415 Campbell Ave. and continued in the sally port at police headquarters on Sawmill Road, indicated Riehl had reason to fear for his personal safety.

Stober, who had an outstanding warrant in connection with a Jan. 26 felony domestic violence charge, initially wouldn’t come out of the vehicle and later let his body go limp as “dead weight” to keep the officers from moving him, the reports say.

Stober had told Riehl and backup officer Brandon Butler that he wanted to die and that he had AIDS, and he repeatedly spit on the officers and tried to bite Riehl, the reports state.

When Riehl employed what he initially called a “leg sweep” maneuver — a term police later said might have been inaccurately used — it knocked Stober off his feet, causing him to strike his forehead on the concrete in the sally port, causing bleeding.

The West Haven Fire Department was summoned to the scene to treat Stober’s injuries, the internal affairs report said.

City Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan, who advised Karajanis not to comment beyond what was on the public record, said Riehl was entitled to due process and there were other members of the department “who spoke in favor of” Riehl during the disciplinary process.

“I can’t get into the commission’s heads,” Tiernan said. But “if you believe that the leg sweep was a justifiable use of force, then how can you fault the Board of Police Commissioners?

“They’re the representatives of the community and they’re saying, ‘This guy ... is worth saving,’” Tiernan said.

Police records show Stober has an extensive history of alcohol and narcotic abuse and that he had “been extremely combative and uncooperative with the police in the past,” according to the internal affairs report.

“This information had been relayed to officers” during an earlier roll call lineup, the report said.

When the officers came upon Stober, “Officer Riehl described him as appearing to be very intoxicated and with a strong odor of alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath,” the report says.