Concerns of mistrust between police departments and their communities were aired at a three-hour forum last week, where state legislators considered how to reform police departments across the state.
The legislative forum, moderated by former Fox Connecticut anchor Al Terzi, solicited remarks from state representatives and senators, U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman. Held in Hartford on April 2, the forum was a collaboration between the Public Safety and Judiciary Committees of the General Assembly. In his opening remarks, state Sen. Eric Coleman, a Democrat who represents Hartford and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the conversation was “well overdue.”
“I think that a blunt and candid and frank discussion of some of the issues that are in front of us can be very helpful,” Coleman said. “I am disturbed that relations between police and law enforcement and community are not better.”
The discussion at the forum quickly moved to racial profiling. Terzi asked Connecticut legal experts about how events in Ferguson and Staten Island have affected discussions between law enforcement, activists and community organizations across the state.
Tanya Hughes, executive director for the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, said at the forum that open-minded dialogue has become difficult because many individuals and organizations on both sides of the issue appear to have rigid opinions.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane echoed this sentiment, noting that it is hard to shift public opinion about who is to blame when a police officer has used force against a citizen. Kane said that if the fear felt by a police officer is deemed to be “reasonable” in a legal sense, then the officer has the right to use deadly force. However, whether or not a police officer had reason to act in self-defense is often debated.
Esserman responded to criticisms of police by asking individuals to consider police departments’ opinions.
Sgt. Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union and a former Yale Police Department officer, said at the hearing that a critical problem is that confrontations between Caucasian police officers and Caucasian citizens does not garner the same public attention as police interactions with African-American citizens.
Activists in New Haven, however, have claimed that interactions with African-American citizens are inherently different from those with Caucasian citizens. Most recently, the New Haven Police Union and community activists stood outside of City Hall protesting police handling of the arrest of 15-year-old Teandrea Cornelius — an African-American girl who was slammed to the ground by a police officer who discovered she was carrying a weapon. The officer was exonerated of wrongdoing in the incident.
“This is unacceptable behavior for law officers, especially as [the NHPD] are trying to push for community policing,” community activist Barbara Fair told the News at a subsequent protest.
However, Matthews said there is a very high standard for applicants to police forces across the state. He called the application process “by far superior” to those of other states.
“In four and a half years as union president, I’ve drafted eight resignations for troopers [who] did not belong on the job,” he said.
Minority groups spoke at their meeting about their continued problems working with the police department.
Imam Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari, president of the Greater Hartford Branch of the NAACP, said the organization has been trying to combat mistrust between communities by encouraging more people of color to work in the police force. Still, Ansari added that the most qualified to take the job do not want to approach the force.
“[A lot of the young men] have very negative attitudes toward the police,” he said. “They feel that, from the Greater Hartford community, that there is a lack of respect for people by the police. Everyone is assumed to be a criminal or lawbreaker.”
A forum on Tuesday will release this year’s statistics concerning racial profiling across the state’s police departments.