West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick addressed the Town Council on Tuesday evening for a public safety update focused on vandalism that took place on LaSalle Road Sunday afternoon.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Police continue to scour security footage and Chief Vernon Riddick said they will do everything possible to identify the individuals who vandalized 65 LaSalle Road during a rally that began at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon and was billed as a “New Year for a Free Palestine” event.
An estimated 150 to 200 participants left the grounds of Town Hall, marching through Blue Back Square up to Farmington Avenue where they headed west, and then turned left to head south on LaSalle Road, Riddick told Council members during a briefing that Mayor Shari Cantor and Town Manger Rick Ledwith asked him to provide at the beginning of Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled meeting, and he also responded to questions from Council members.
“West Hartford is a vibrant, diverse, welcoming community. We strongly condemn any defacing or destruction of public or private property,” Cantor told We-Ha.com on Wednesday. “We will take action and anyone involved will be held accountable.”
“If they’d have been caught you’d know already,” Riddick said in response to a request by Minority Leader Mark Zydanowicz regarding any arrests.
Police are reviewing security footage, and Riddick said he is “very confident in our detectives and patrol officers” and their investigation, and that they will identify the individuals responsible. “When we identify them and develop probable cause, we will effect an arrest.”
Sunday’s incident involved vandalism to a degree that police would consider beyond just a misdemeanor, and Riddick said the charges would rise to the level of a felony.
Members of the group initially plastered the windows of Webster Bank and Becker’s Jewelers – the ground floor businesses at 65 LaSalle Road – with posters. Then, in what police said was a calculated move, with members of the group strategically shielding the view of officers who were on the outskirts, the windows and exterior of the building were drenched with bright red paint.
Police were aware of the rally – organized and promoted widely on social media by American Muslims for Palestine Connecticut Chapter, UConn Students for Justice in Palestine, and We Will Return Palestine – and Riddick said some of the same groups have already held several events in West Hartford that have involved chanting and marching, but otherwise have ended without incident. Police were on the scene, and had drones deployed as well.
Neither Becker’s Jewelers nor Webster Bank appear to have been specifically targeted, Riddick said. In a post on Instagram that was later edited, American Muslims for Palestine referred to Eagle Investment Systems, a subsidiary of BNY Mellon, which has an office at 65 LaSalle and which they state is an investor in Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms manufacturer. Eagle and Elbit were both named in the posters plastered on the windows and the building, and in the chants of protestors.
Rallies, protests, and vigils on public property are permitted – with no need for a permit – and are considered freedom of speech. In response to a question from Councilor Alberto Cortes about this group changing their tactics, however, Riddick said police will have a different approach going forward if these same groups stage another rally in West Hartford.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s still a case-by-case basis … but with this particular group, yes.” Since 2020, there have been 50 or 60 protests of various types held in West Hartford, and this is the first time something like has happened, Riddick said – a credit to officers as well as those who have exercised their first amendment rights.
“I do want folks to remember we had about 2,000 people who were walking through this town … another protest [of] 500-600,” he said. Police are doing their jobs, and any comments made on social media of that being untrue, “I don’t think are fair,” he said.
If they’re just putting up flyers, “is it worth getting in there and inciting the crowd?” Riddick asked, when there are 150 or 200 people and just a few officers. When the group gathered in front of LaSalle on Sunday, however, their blocking of the view of the officers was “very strategic,” Riddick said. They had radios, they had vests, he said, and he commended the officers, “for what they did, their restraint, their wisdom.”
Councilor Carol Blanks, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, asked the chief about monitoring chatter on social media.“It’s probably the worst-kept secret, but yes we do,” Riddick said. Monitoring is done on a local, state, and federal level by law enforcement as well as private entities, and groups of activists are aware that happens and they monitor as well, he said, and they often use code. Intelligence gathering continues post-event, he added.
Police accountability laws, which were modified following incidents in 2020, make situations like this one more complicated and officers have to walk a fine line. “It’s risk-reward,” Riddick said. But if the police had seen the spray painting taking place, they “would have taken action,” he said. And if a situation gets out of control, there is a plan – that he cannot share publicly – to get additional resources in place quickly.
If the groups return, and repeat or even escalate their approach, Riddick said, “We’ll be ready. I can’t get into techniques and strategies.”
Riddick asked members of the community who may have information seen on social media or elsewhere about this incident – or any other planned incidents – to please share those details with police via the anonymous tip line 860-570-8969 or email [email protected].
Because the temperatures were so cold on Sunday, the paint wasn’t able to be removed right away. Most of the red paint was gone Monday after temperatures rose and the Department of Public Works was able to use a power washer, but the type of paint was “very sticky.”
Town Manager Rick Ledwith said snow that had turned red from the paint was removed from the site, and the rest of the residue will be cleaned up as soon as the weather is warm enough. Businesses were not prevented from opening due to the incident.
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