Elijah Joyner already didn’t like cops. Watching the latest footage of police officers shooting an unarmed black man only strengthened those feelings.
“To be honest, I don’t like cops no more,” the teen told more than 100 people gathered at First Calvary Baptist Church on Dixwell Avenue Thursday night to talk about race, violence and how to mend the fractured relationship between the police and the community. “I stopped liking cops after what they did to my father.”
The event laid bare the emotions on both sides of that relationship in the wake of shootings, many of them fatal, that have sown distrust nationwide between police and local communities.
Sixteen year old Elijah didn’t elaborate at the forum, hosted by the Rev. Boise Kimber and moderated by Integrated Wellness Group founder and Executive Director Maysa Akbar, about what happened to his father. But he wanted to know what Sgt. Shafiq Abdussabur, the top police officer for Newhallvile/East Rock/Cedar Hill, thought about the video, showing a North Miami police shooting an unarmed African-American therapist when cops stopped him and and his autistic patient from a group home. Video shows that Kinsey’s hands were raised, and that he told police that he nor his patient had a weapon. The officers were responding to a 911 call about an attempted suicide allegedly involving a gun.
Abdussabur went back in time to just a week and a half ago to his reaction to seeing video of the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers. Abdussabur spoke of his multiple identities as a black man, a father of two sons, a Muslim and a 20-year veteran of the police department.
He saw a version of the video of the incident that had a musical accompaniment; he told Elijah that the beat from that song is now with him every morning when he wakes up from the roughly three hours of sleep he gets each night. He said he gets only that much sleep because of the things he’s seen and been through as a police officer.
“It was traumatizing for me,” Abdussabur said. “I’ve been in a shooting. I shot the car tires. I got fired for shooting the car tires. I violated a policy that you couldn’t shoot the car; you had to shoot the person. I made a personal decision to shoot the tires and got fired.
“I lived with that. I got my job back. But I was comfortable with my decision. That was what I had to live with when I went home. I’m still traumatized by that shooting. My kids are still traumatized. So I’m sensitive to that video.”
He said the latest video he saw left him torn between his love for his profession and his love for black people, particularly black men. He’s torn because the reality is when he’s in plain clothes he’s under threat from both communities he loves.
“It is emotional for me now, to even talk about it, ” he said, voice breaking. “I don’t know the guy, but I feel like I know him. It’s troubling to us as officers. You gotta know that. I can’t speak for the officer that pulled the trigger. I don’t know that officer. I’m not in that officer’s shoes. I would pray that if my officers were in that situation they would fall back on our unique and distinct and creative training that we’ve talked about here today. I can’t speak for that officer. But I can feel that pain. I love my profession and I love the officers that I work with, the good officers that represent this badge. I’m also torn because I love my black people, my black men.
“But I’m under threat off duty by both of y’all,” he added. “And then my kids are under threat, off duty, by both of y’all. So, I’m torn in a love affair between two cultures. And you need to understand with police officers, that’s what we’re dealing with.
“You know, I don’t know what happened to your father,” Abdussabur told Joyner. “I can’t necessarily apologize on behalf of other officers, but I can tell you there’s real officers in this city that will lay down their life. My job is to lay my life down for those four officers sitting there, and their job is to lay their life down for you. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re committed to. We may not go home tonight. And we still gotta do our job.”
Not Buying it
Earlier in the just over two-hour dialogue, Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, laid out the broader reason why the community doesn’t trust the cops. He described two different justice systems: one for the community and one for cops.
“You all have got a blue wall,” he told Abdussabur. “That’s the reason why there’s a Black Lives Matter. You kill people in our communities, and you get away with it, and you get away with it and you get away with it.
“You all are law enforcement? Why aren’t you arresting these murderers in our community? You don’t see black officers going into white communities and killing white people. If that was being done, white people would deal with you.
“So we feel powerless and we don’t trust you. You say that we matter, but if we do matter why aren’t you arresting these cops?”
Esdaile said the reason why people keep protesting is because the system of justice for police officers keeps allowing so-called rogue officers to get away. He use an example of a former cop who once tried to stop officers from beating up a popular young man from the neighborhood. That officer’s decision to wade in on the side of the young man being beaten by the other officers, turned into the officers getting into a fight with one another. Ultimately, the officer who sided against his fellow officers, was the only one who ended up suspended.
“We’re seeing those type of results and that creates a wall of mistrust,” he said. “Because if you are a real officer, you’re supposed to take care of the people [and] not those doing wrong. If I do something wrong, arrest me. Treat me just like everybody else. Handcuff me and let the judge and jury decide. Don’t beat me. Don’t break my skull. And don’t humiliate me in front of everyone like that. The same way you arrest a kid at Yale is the same way you arrest a young kid in Newhallville. But we don’t see that.”
“This has not just started happening,” he said. “This has been going ever since we’ve been in America. We came here in handcuffs. And we continuously keep getting handcuffs placed on us. So until there’s real justice, there will always be protest. There will always be mistrust. There is no love, and there will be tension.”
He pointed out the four officers who sat in the audience and listened to the entire panel discussion, which included Abdussabur, Esdaile, Mayor Toni Harp, the school system’s Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin, city youth department chief Jason Bartlett, State Reps. Toni Walker and Robyn Porter, Police Chief Dean Esserman, and Greater New Haven Clergy Association President Rev. James Newman. Sen. Richard Blumenthal also briefly attended the beginning of the forum to provide some perspective from the federal level.
“Look at the police officers over there,” Esdaile said. “They’re not sitting with the people. They’re isolated within their own self because that is the way the community is. That’s a real testimony of the way it is. And if we’re going to have real open and honest dialogue, that has to break down. And we know a police officer is not going to turn over another police officer. And you say to us: ‘Y’all don’t snitch.’ But y’all don’t snitch either. So, I’m talking real talk to you. Until that happens, ain’t going to be no real love. That’s real talk.”
In response, Abdussabur pointed out that police officers do the very same thing that people do in many group settings, especially if it is a new setting: They congregate with the people they know. He also said that at least in New Haven, the department has arrested its own officers, but the community doesn’t get to see that process. He tried to explain the complicated and often winding road of prosecuting an officer who has shot someone, and the many moving parts of an independent investigation, which is carried out by the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI but can involve other entities like the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Esdaile wasn’t buying it.
“When you talk about these rogue officers, and they say there are only a few officers doing this kind of stuff, but if you know who they are, arrest them,” he said. “Until you do that, there’s always going be a wall of distrust. The first thing that we need to do, the low-hanging fruit is, arrest one of your own.”
Abdussabur said that he understood Esdaile’s points. He said the process of investigating and ultimately punishing officers is rooted in miscommunication, which can breed mistrust.
“I completely understand that if I were part of a community that saw a specific type of police officer shooting someone in my community, I would feel that my community and myself was under attack,” he said. “However, the police officers in a department, when there is a police shooting, and someone dies, in almost all police departments the officers themselves do not conduct that investigation. That investigation is done by the Justice Department or the FBI and that is a separate branch of government. So in fact the police have to cooperate with that outside agency because if they don’t they’re subject to arrest. The other part is, as police officers, part of our shortcoming in dealing with the community, we’re on an hour schedule so we often don’t have the time to stop, talk, take a coffee, get a juice or have that conversation because in the next moment we’re running to another stop. Can’t get to know your name. I’ve got to go some place else. Our other shortcoming is you seeing us as real people. I’m a real person.
“Our officers are real people. Those officers out there are real people. That is really the tough part that I want us to bridge is that we’re just people.”
Time For Action
Akbar told the crowd that she has an 18-year-old son. Like so many parents of black children, she has given him the talk about how to behave if ever he is stopped by police officers.
Each time he is going out, the list starts with an argument about not wearing a hoodie and has only gotten longer with every police shooting. That list of do’s and don’ts includes keeping his hands visible, not making any sudden movements. After showing him this latest video from North Miami, she said her son had one question for her: “Well, what am I supposed to do now?”
“And I didn’t have an answer,” she said. “I’m not sure where we’re going to go from here. I’m not sure that we have answers. And I think we have a lot more questions than we have answers and I think we’re going to continue to have to ask a lot more questions. And I don’t want to move us into resolution until we’re ready to get there. And today may not be the day that we get to resolution and tomorrow may not be the day that we get to resolution. I want to give us the space to be able to keep asking the questions until we’re satisfied.”
She asked panelists how the community and police heal their own individual and collective traumas and fears, how they heal the fractured relationship between the community and the police.
Newman said the healing process starts with the police departments all over America holding officers accountable when they kill people in a way that is visible to the community. It also starts with developing a national standard for police training.
“As long as you see black men being shot and sort of pushed aside,” he said, “the way I see it, if you just allow things to continue to go on, and go on and go on in the same way [healing can’t happen]. I think we’ve had too many conversations and not enough reactions. A lot of times we come out to talk and go home and say, ‘Ooh, we had a talk,’ but nothing came out of the talk. And I think America has to realize that something has to come out of the talk. And one of the things that has to come out is that you can’t protect cops who are bad.
“If you are on police department and you know who is stealing and you say, ‘I’m not going to say nothing,’ you’re just as bad. When you are held accountable by your fellow brothers and sisters in the police department then you tend to back up and want to do the right thing. But healing is going to come from seeing the authorities that are higher arrest and start to bring charges down on people. You can’t have a man pinned down to the ground by two men, pull a gun out, shoot them point blank. I mean you can’t do that. How can you heal a community that sees something like this? It’s hard.”
Esdaile called out New Haven’s police union and police unions across the country for protecting rogue officers to the point that good police officers don’t feel they can break the blue wall of silence.
“We have to deal with the blue wall and get the officers that are conducting themselves in this manner in our community,” he said. “The officer’s duty is to arrest and protect. We need to demand that the police commission, our chief and the leadership of the police department arrest those officers. The chief has done this. He has arrested police officers before, but it must continue.”
State Rep. Porter too said it’s time for action.
“Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand,’ and I think our communities have asked enough questions,” she said. “I think we have to come together collectively and make some demands. We know what we see is wrong. You pinned him down, you shot him point blank in his chest. The young man in an open carry state, had a weapon, and he did exactly what he was instructed to do. He had permits to carry guns, he told the cop he had a gun, the cop asked him for ID, he’s going for it, he gets shot and killed. That which we saw, [the Kinsey video], the call was there was a man with a gun attempting suicide. My first thought was, ‘Who called this in? Who was the person who saw a man with a gun committing suicide,’ because how do you even come to that assumption? What does that look like? No. 2 ... I would think if someone with a gun was trying to kill themselves, do you show up and shoot somebody? What’s the question? We already know the answer to these questions. We need to make some demands.”
Rev. Kimber said he didn’t want the tensions that have erupted around the country that have resulted in lost lives on both sides to make people lose sight of the relationships that have been built in New Haven and its police department. He said his clergy association has the ear of the chief, the mayor and U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly. He said clergy train police academy recruits to recognize implicit bias.
He also made it a point to acknowledge that it was likely tough for the four beat cops in the room to sit and listen to two hours of pointed criticism.
“If you think that we don’t have serious conversation with this chief and this mayor about what we see and changes that we would like to see happen,” Kimber said, the audience should think again. “Everyone has different ways of dealing with change. I could hold a press conference every day, but what good would that do if I’m not in room helping to make the change, giving input to the change? I think we have heard from every branch of the community, but I don’t want us to beat up on those who are our protectors. Both of us need to build a relationship. We’ve got a responsibility. Police officers have a responsibility. I don’t want anybody to leave here mad with New Haven police department.”
That said, Kimber also added that he believes that New Haven needs elected district attorneys and prosecutors.