Pubdate: Thu, 10 Feb 2000
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 2000, New Haven Register
Author: Michelle Tuccitto, Register Staff


NEW HAVEN -- North Branford Police Officer Michael Breen was justified in
using deadly force when he fatally shot a West Haven woman during a traffic
stop last summer, according to a ruling issued Wednesday by State's Attorney
Michael Dearington.

Breen, frantically waving his arms in an attempt to stop the driver, had
only seconds to react to a car coming straight at him on a dark, rainy
night, according to the report.

Breen therefore had reason to fear for his life when Victoria Cooper drove
toward him on Route 80 in North Branford early July 13, Dearington wrote in
a 40-page report to Chief State's Attorney John Bailey.

"Officer Breen, through no fault of his own, was confronted with a motor
vehicle weighing over 3,000 pounds bearing on him, and the operator did not
heed his efforts to stop or slow down," Dearington wrote.

"Officer Breen fired two shots when the vehicle was within several seconds
of arriving at his location."

Dearington recommended that no further action be taken by state criminal
justice officials.

"The bottom line is that he found that my client told the truth and was in
fear of his life," said attorney Jack Kelly of Orange, who represents Breen.

North Branford Police Chief Matthew Canelli said the department is pleased
with the results of the investigation.

"It exonerates Mike Breen, which is what we've been waiting for," said
Canelli. "The whole situation is tragic. Someone's life was taken at an
early age, and Mike's life will be changed forever. He hasn't taken any of
this lightly."

Breen didn't comment on the report Wednesday, as there is a pending civil
lawsuit against him. Cooper's mother, Margaret Cowan, filed a wrongful death
lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Haven against Breen in January.

David Rosen, the attorney representing Cooper's family, said his clients are
disappointed with the ruling.

Family members reached Wednesday said they disagree with several aspects of
the report, but they deferred further comment to Rosen.

"They don't feel they've gotten the answer to the question: Why is it
reasonable for a police officer to shoot and kill a woman through the
driver's side window as she was driving by?" said Rosen.

Rosen said he hopes the civil case against Breen will answer that question.

"Hopefully, we can get to the bottom of what happened that night and why,"
said Rosen. "As much as the family realized that prosecuting a police
officer is next to impossible, they were still taken aback that the report
found his actions reasonable." In making his determination, Dearington
reviewed reports from the state police Major Crime Squad and North Branford
police, as well as autopsy and laboratory results.

Cooper, 41, a mother of two, was a passenger in a Chevrolet Camaro when
Breen pulled it over near the Guilford town line at about 1:20 a.m.

Breen determined the car owner's license was suspended. Breen searched the
driver, Steven Guerette, and found traces of cocaine on him, said police.

In his report, Dearington notes that Steven Guerette admitted to police that
he and Cooper had purchased and smoked crack cocaine that night. Toxicology
results from Cooper's autopsy showed cocaine in her system.

Police later found nine plastic bags of cocaine in the Camaro, and nine
baggies of crack were concealed in Cooper's sock, the report states.

Guerette fled on foot, and Breen pursued but lost him, police said.

As Breen was making his way back to his cruiser to call for back-up, Cooper
took the wheel of the Camaro.

Breen told investigators he was in the middle of the road and saw the car
coming at him, so he yelled for it to stop and waved his arms. He told
police he believed the operator was trying to strike him, and that the
vehicle came within 3 feet of him.

"The fact that the operator did not respond to both yelling and waving of
hands also is supportive of the officer's belief that the operator was
intending to inflict harm and/or flight," said Dearington in his report.

Several of Cooper's family members have said that she suffered from poor
vision, particularly at night, and likely didn't see Breen. Dearington said
it is unknown how clearly she saw the road ahead of her because of her
impaired vision and a wet roadway.

"However, irrespective of these considerations, the conduct of Officer Breen
must be judged based upon what he reasonably perceived and whether his
response to such perceptions was reasonable," wrote Dearington.

Breen fired two shots. The first glanced off the car's hood at an angle, and
the second shattered the driver's side window and struck Cooper, entering
the her chest cavity from the side.

A forensic investigation conducted by Henry Lee, commissioner of the
Department of Public Safety, showed that the first shot was fired when the
officer was in front of and slightly to the right of the vehicle.

The second shot was fired as the Camaro began to pass the officer, the
reconstruction report states.

Breen estimated the Camaro's speed at about 30 mph.

"It is clear from the experimental results that the vehicle was not
stationary or traveling at a low speed," Lee's report stated.

Guerette is now serving a one-year prison sentence for a drug charge
stemming from the incident.
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