As upheaval consumed the streets of Ferguson, Missouri following the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, people across the country also raised questions about their city’s own citizen-police dynamic.
New Haven leaders from several areas of society — ranging from academia to politics — said that they hope to capitalize on the national discussion about police policy to improve the law enforcement culture in New Haven.
An Aug. 19 protest on campus, attended by over 100, focused on issues of structural racism that some believe cause tension between police and young, African-American males. Others who did not participate in the on-campus protest, like anti-crime initiative Project Longevity director William Mathis and sociology professor Elijah Anderson, echoed these sentiments.
“This gets tiresome because every black parent — middle class and working class, ghetto or nonghetto — has children who run up against this problem,” Anderson said. “There might be a cop who gets out of control, so you tell your son to behave himself, be cool, be polite.”
He added that law enforcement strategies based on the “broken windows” theory, which encourages police to be increasingly strict on small-scale crimes in order to preemptively curb dangerous behavior, has pushed some officers to quickly profile individuals based on race in order to crack down on small crimes.
This tendency, Anderson said, contributes to a vicious cycle that could breed mutual animosity between police and young, African-American males and eventually “explode” into incidents like the one in Ferguson.
“Blacks have been living with this for a long time,” he said. “A lot of them have tried to deal with it by behaving themselves and being nice, but some people don’t want to take it anymore and they deal with it by exploding. Maybe that’s what [Brown] did in Ferguson.”
Mathis also said one solution to this tension is to ensure that police forces fairly represent the demographics of the cities they serve.
Calls for greater diversity within New Haven’s municipalities, including its police department, cropped up over the past year as a court case, dubbed the New Haven 10 case, questioned whether African-American police officers were unfairly passed over for promotion.
“We need to take action to lessen these sporadic explosions,” Mathis said. “If that means we need to petition so that the police force and fire department look more like us, then we need to do that.”
Numbers provided by New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman indicate that 43 percent of the force’s budgeted officers are minorities. The most recent New Haven census shows that 57.4 percent of Elm City residents are minorities.
But Anderson warned that diversity does not guarantee accountability, adding that sweeping change must take place to ensure that all officers, regardless of race, learn to handle their responsibilities with care.
“There’s something systemic about it that we need to correct,” Anderson said. “If the black officers come in and are trained by people who are ignorant, then they can repeat the mistakes.”
Still, government leaders interviewed said they remain confident that New Haven and other Connecticut cities would have avoided the chaos that unfolded quickly in Ferguson because of their police protocols.
Undersecretary Mike Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criminal justice advisor, said that because the state would assume control of a case like the Brown shooting, he is confident that it would avoid some of the complications that arose in Ferguson, where most resources were local. He also added that state police would not be given military-grade equipment to combat civilian protesters under any circumstances.
Ultimately, strong ties between the community and the police are too valuable to risk, he said.
“The most important thing is that, here in Connecticut, we put a big premium on community policing and maintaining relationships. We want police departments to look like and come from the communities they serve.”
On Aug. 21, 2014 the National Guard was withdrawn three days after being dispatched to Ferguson.