Even though Ferguson, Missouri is over 1,000 miles away from New Haven, the events that occurred there continue to be part of academic and community discussion in the Elm City.
On April 16, the Justice Collaboratory, a group of academics at the Yale Law School dedicated to the study and practice of criminal justice reform and policy, invited over 50 law students, police officers, academics and community activists to The Study at Yale. There, the conference attendees heard from speakers who discussed how policing in the United States has been, or should be, affected by the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown and the protests that followed.
In Thursday’s keynote address, Vanita Gupta ’96, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, described the DOJ’s recommendation on how the city repairs tore community and police relations.
“Change is going to require commitment at a local level,” she said.
Gupta praised the New Haven Police Department for the example it has set to the nation regarding community policing. She described NHPD Chief Dean Esserman as one of the most “important police leaders in the country.” On March 12, the NHPD’s unique community policing methods were featured on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the News earlier this week, Esserman described the NHPD’s community policing structure, which requires all new police officers who graduate from the NHPD police academy to take on a year-long walking beat in a particular neighborhood. This walking beat, Esserman said, helps to strengthen relationships between officers and the people they serve.
A large portion of Gupta’s speech was devoted to discussing the interim report of a presidential task force focusing on 21st century policing. President Barack Obama created the task force in December 2014 to investigate how to strengthen community policing and restore trust between law enforcement officers and their communities. The interim report, released in March, outlines lessons learned from Ferguson.
“Recent events across the country […] have underscored the need for and importance of lasting collaborative relationships between local police and the public,” the introduction of the report reads.
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, reiterated the importance of developing relationships between police and community. Fernandez spoke as part of a panel called “Us and Them?: Police-Community Relations,” which included speakers from groups who have felt victimized by police, including Muslim Americans, those identifying as LGBTQ, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and immigrant residents.
Susan Shah, a program director at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, said at the conference that the issue of police-community relations had been a “fringe issue” for a long time. But even though nationwide protests have brought the discussion into the spotlight, there are still elements of the dialogue — including language barriers and lack of cultural understanding between officers and immigrant communities — that need to be discussed, she said.
She added that police departments across the country need to take larger steps in community policing strategy in order to achieve change.
“It can’t just be about one tactic,” she said. “It’s about a wholesale change within a [policing] agency.”
To illustrate the practical benefits of a community policing model, Fernandez described her own experience working at a Latino youth center in Washington, D.C., where a staff member was shot and seven youths were injured during a party one Friday night. She described the lack of communication between police and individuals after the incident, but added that the area saw a drastic drop in violent crime when the community center began making a conscious effort to form relationships with police. She said the community center invited police officers in to share meals with the youth, and the subsequent increased police presence near the center improved security in the area.
Echoing the words of others on the panel, Fernandez said there are many positive side effects of successful community policing.
“A lot of times, victims can only get services if they report the crime,” she said, explaining that poor relations with the police can often discourage citizens from reporting crimes. “Having really good relations is important, so victims can get these services.”
Friday’s program will include panels titled “Is Ferguson the Exception or the Rule?” and “The Future of Policing,” including further remarks from Esserman and Philip Eure, inspector general of the New York Police Department. The conference will close on April 17.