Crime is down in New Haven, but several high profile clashes among police officers, ordinary residents and protesters have resown seeds of mistrust between officers and the communities they’re sworn to protect.
How can that trust be regained? By not giving up on the community, the police, or the concept of community policing.
That was the conclusion that participants—law enforcement and community members—came to during a forum hosted this week at the Long Wharf Theater by the anti-gang-violence Project Longevity, run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in conjunction with state and local law enforcement.
The Tuesday event featured four panel discussions with officials like U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly and Chief State’s Attorney Pat Griffin and young New Haveners like Lamar Lawrence, who recently returned to society after incarceration.
Lawrence, 24, said he’s been in and out of jail since he was 14 years old and he doesn’t plan to go back because he’s not the same person he was. In spite of being in an out of trouble for about a decade of his life, he said he’s always had pretty good interactions with the police, telling the audience that police officers have given him rides when he’s been stranded in another town, listened to what he’s had to say and given him advice even as he was heading off to jail again.
But even still, he said he gets nervous around a room filled with police officers as it was Tuesday.
“I’ma keep it 100 with y’all,” he said. “I was nervous to speak, me just getting out of jail an all. I was nervous a few minutes ago even using the bathroom. But I guess we all just gotta conquer our fears a lot of times. Some cops don’t care. A police officer might not care what somebody has to say and just say, ‘I’m a police officer, don’t talk to me. Turn around put the handcuffs on. I guess we learn how to speak to each other without conflict.”
He said there are many people who are afraid to just walk up to a police officer and say “hello.”
Daniel Hunt, an ESUMS high graduate who now works at his alma mater, said that police officers can do a lot to change that. He said he’s had run-ins with the police that have not always been positive, but an incident where he an officer both came together to resolve a problem has stuck with him about what’s possible when it comes to building trust.
“He apologized and I apologized,” Hunt said. “We were both wrong. I think when there’s conflict between young people and officers in the community, I think we have to understand both sides.”
Hunt suggested that part of understanding both sides is making sure that officers who are not from New Haven know more about what it’s like to grow up in New Haven.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I’ve seen people get shot. I’ve seen raids. I’ve seen domestics. With a lot of young officers, I feel they don’t all the way understand where come from.”
Someone who likely understands is Assistant Chief Ontoniel Reyes, who grew up in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Reyes, who participated in a panel about community and police reconciliation, said it’s important for a police department to acknowledge the pain and mistrust that certain communities feel and validate those concerns. And they have to be able to do that while often wading into the middle of conflicts.
“We can’t begin to repair—we can’t begin to reconcile if we don’t do that,” he said. “I think as a police department we need to educate ourselves on a lot of the history between the community and the police. [It] predates many of us in the police department. It’s been decades in the making, but we are tasked with dealing with and repairing those relationships. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
WEB Management Team Co-Chair Nadine Herring said that repairing those relationships is a two-way street. She said in her neighborhood district managers and their officers have made it a point to be active in the neighborhood even if they didn’t live there.
“I think that went a huge way in building trust and showing residents that they care,” she said. “They actually stuck around, came out on weekends and made themselves available after hours by phone, by email.”
But she said one of the things that has made the difference is the willingness of the community and its officers to engage with each other, to have conversations and to keep having them in both good times and bad.
“I know that’s easier said than done, especially for those who have a history of abuse or mistrust,” she said. “But I think in order to start to repair the damage, you have to be able to talk to each other honestly. One of the things I love about our neighborhood is that we can reach out to our district manager and have a conversation. If there is an issue about something and you don’t feel comfortable in a group setting, you can reach out and talk to him. He will make himself available.”
Herring said when the cops reach out, the community must make it a point to reach back. And to do that, the Rev. Todd Foster, pastor of Church On The Rock, said that people are going to have to muster some empathy for one another. He said there is always some level of conflict between law enforcement and communities, and it transcends far beyond New Haven. And that conflict can be driven by race, generational and socio-economic differences.
“No matter what neighborhood you live in, it’s how we deal with those issues that determines whether we are handling things effectively or not,” he said. “I think New Haven does a pretty good job handling that does vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, but you will never do away with centuries of conflict that lie beneath the surface.”
Foster said people will always find reasons to separate themselves, and the only way to change that is work at being empathetic as a community, pealing back “the mask, the badge, the hoodie.”
“We’re all real people and we have more in common than what separates us,” he said.
Stacy Spell, who heads up New Haven’s Project Longevity, said he sent out more than 600 invitations to fill a theater with 190 seats and that “we failed miserably.” He said he wanted more people to attend because he believes that New Haven is in a historic moment.
“Never before have we had a time in the history of New Haven where we’re able to impact change in our community,” the retired police detective said. “Each and everyone here is a social change agent.”
He said the combination of a police department where the majority of the leadership are all “sons of New Haven,” an administration that believes in providing second chances for the formerly incarcerated, people who have been to prison who figured out how to create jobs for themselves and others, and an engaged citizenry are good ground to make change. But he said people have to be ready to move beyond rhetoric.
“It’s about relationships,” he said.