FARMINGTON, CT (WFSB) -- Her husband was nearly killed at the hands of a man who police are calling a “career criminal.”
The wife of Farmington Police Officer James O’Donnell spoke exclusively to Channel 3, on how this tragedy has changed lives.
Last week, Farmington police released dash cam footage from the crash that happened last month.
These tragedies have happened before, but it’s rare to learn about the impact on the human lives captured in a grainy black and white video.
In the overnight hours on Sept. 20, Kris O’Donnell was startled awake.
“Lt. McKenzie yelled ‘police,’ and I said, ‘I see that. My husband is a cop. I can’t open the door.’ He then said, ‘Kris, James has been in an accident, James got hit by a car’,” she explained. “I almost fainted to the floor.”
Police told her that her husband, a three-year veteran of the Farmington Police Department, was responding to a call for stolen catalytic converters on Talcott Forest Road.
Through dash cam footage released last week, the suspect is seen in a white car that gets boxed in by parked cars, trees and officer O’Donnell’s cruiser. It’s a video that haunts his wife.
“I needed to see every second of it and I watched it over and over,” she said.
The stolen car was being driven by 32-year-old Pedro Acevedo.
It’s a situation, Kris said, that would have any officer questioning whether use of deadly force would be appropriate.
Officer O’Donnell holds up his weapon but doesn’t shoot.
“He hesitated, he hesitated,” Kris said.
Police say Acevedo, got away by driving into O’Donnell.
“I wanted to see if there was any reaction from the guy who did this. Did he stop, maybe, and hesitate before he left,” Kris said.
In the dash cam video, it appears there is no hesitation. The car speeds off with police trailing behind.
Another officer and an eyewitness with medical training rushed to O’Donnell’s side.
When Kris speaks with her husband now, she shies away from getting into the details of that night.
“I am not qualified in psychology, I don’t know what the long-term effects will be if we’re discussing him being hit. I don’t know what he remembers specifically,” Kris said.
She does believe James didn’t pull the trigger because he didn’t want to face a potential lawsuit.
That’s now a possibility for officers in Connecticut.
It’s one part of the Police Accountability Act that was passed last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I would bet my life that my husband did not shoot because we would have lost our house,” Kris said.
Instead, Officer O’Donnell is spending his days recovery at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, trying to regain his ability to move the lower part of his body.
“He had too many fractures in the pelvis and hip region for them to even count. The surgeon used the word ‘smashed’,” she explained.
Kris visits her husband there as often as she can.
Right now, she has to prepare their two kids, 2-year-old Andrew and 6-month-old Saoirse for their father’s new reality.
It includes a chairlift to get up the stairs.
Kris says James has a rod through his hips and has no lower body strength. He is slowly starting the process of rehabilitation.
While the 32-year-old father of two will be in rehab for at least another month, doctors do believe that one day O’Donnell will walk again.
The kids don’t know what’s happened and haven’t seen their father since this tragedy.
“Their dad is trying to make things safe for society. Farmington should be in an uproar over this happening,” O’Donnell said.
Kris believes if not for her relentless fight to raise awareness on social media, her husband’s near-death experience would be forgotten.
“While this situation is impacting me personally, I believe that the situation impacts the public even more than it impacts me,” Kris said.
That statement may resonate more knowing that the suspect in this case was convicted on assault charges 42 days before allegedly using that stolen car to strike officer O’Donnell.
Kris is looking to change the Police Accountability Act.
She’s using what happened to her husband as a prime example of how officers are now approaching the job differently.
The thought of potential litigation after police use force is more of a reality now than ever before.
Last year, the legislature passed the act.
“I believe in 90% of this bill,” she said. “Create diversity, bring in minorities to the police, bring in women to law enforcement.”
One part is controversial.
It removed what’s known as qualified immunity, meaning police officers who use force can be sued in civil court.
Kris relates it to what happened the 20th.
“If he shot, and this shooting was unjustified, we could have been personally been liable in civil court and lost everything we just worked for,” she said. “Taking qualified immunity away was not the answer to social justice reform. All this is doing is endangering law enforcement lives.”
Kris asks the public to look no further than her husband.
Through dashcam video released last week, we see the incident unfold.
Kris felt it was important to see it herself.
If Officer O’Donnell, fearing for his life, had fired a shot in this situation, because the white car appeared trapped, that shooting could have been scrutinized.
“A jury does not have a trained eye. I don’t have a trained eye and I thought the car was trapped. I would not have believed a car could physically move in a 4-foot space,” Kris said. “To a reasonable eye, a 6-foot car cannot fit through a 4-foot space and then it happens.”
And O’Donnell nearly lost his life.
Kris firmly believes her husband didn’t shoot because he was fearful of a lawsuit.
“He protected us. I know that he protected us,” she said.
Acevedo was convicted of assault just 42 days prior to the crime. He’s being held on a $750,000 bond while police look for an accomplice, who they believe is still on the loose.
In addition to juggling a full-time job in the judicial system, O’Donnell is trying to repurpose the house to be ADA accessible.
She’s also staying vocal on social media.
“Nobody was saying ‘justice for James’,” she said.
Angry and unflinching, Kris argues that without qualified immunity, which existed before the police accountability bill passed into law, officers aren’t able to react in the moment.
“Officers can’t be required to process things in milliseconds and they’re crucified,” she said.
Through direct callouts on Instagram, she’s challenging lawmakers to revisit the accountability law.
“They can’t ignore it now,” she said.
Many are responding and she is confident the bill will be discussed during the next legislative session.
“Evil is winning over the good right now and we need to fix it,” she said.
The reason Kris wanted to do the interview is because she says she feels forgotten and says she owes it to her husband to share their reality as well as the reality that officers here in the state are facing.
She wants people to see the unfiltered dashcam video of her husband being hit.
*We are posting this unedited video from the dashcams that were recording at the time Farmington Police Officer James O’Donnell was pinned between a police cruiser and a stolen car. The video and audio may be difficult to see and hear. We are posting the video because Kris O’Donnell, the officer’s wife, feels it is important for people to see what happened to better understand the realities our officers face.*