The corridor leading to the office of Dean Esserman, chief of the New Haven Police Department, is lined with thank-you cards written in children’s handwriting. The cards display love and admiration for the city’s police department, with crayon sketches of the children standing alongside their neighborhood officer.
On the streets outside, protesters tell a different story.
During one recent protest, chants of “out with the killer cops” rang through the streets of New Haven. This protest, along with several others of its kind over the past year, reflects a nationwide trend of tension between police departments and their communities.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Ferguson erupted into protest, defining the incident as police brutality and arguing that it stemmed from an inherently racist police department. The cries of “Black Lives Matter” permeated the nation’s media, increasing in volume after the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others.
Those cries have reached New Haven.
On Dec. 1, a week after a jury decided not to indict Wilson, Yale students responded with a protest. Esserman said he called in his officers ahead of the planned demonstration. Instead of arming them with batons and tear gas, he told them not to respond violently to protesters. He said that, in the spirit of community policing, it is important for officers to hear the concerns of their constituents, even if they are difficult to hear.
“We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to allow people to protest,” Esserman recalled telling his officers.
Esserman said Yale students spat on and cursed at police officers, and even though other departments across the country had made arrests in similar protests, the NHPD did not. Esserman said, for him, the most telling moment of the protest was when one student broke from the group, ran towards an officer and said, “You treated us better than we treated you.”
LIVES AT RISK
Last week, protesters marched from Fair Haven to New Haven to remember Malik Jones, a 21-year-old African-American male who was fatally shot by an East Haven police officer in 1997. As the march approached downtown New Haven, protesters stopped in the middle of the road so that their leader could identify two NHPD officers who were wheeling a shopping cart out of the New Haven Green. The cart was full of a homeless man’s belongings. Protesters shouted at the officers, saying that taking a homeless man’s possessions is an example of police officers failing to look out for the community.
The two police officers on the scene explained to the protesters that they were taking the homeless man’s belongings to a shelter so he could receive care.
Confusions like these are common, according to another officer at the scene of the march. He said preconceived notions about the police prevent constructive dialogue between officers and citizens.
Andy Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, said these prejudices are not easily resolved. He said that even though he is confident none of his officers intend to discriminate, sometimes members of the public think otherwise.
Matthews, who started his career as an officer at the Yale Police Department 21 years ago, said 2015 stands out as a particularly difficult year to be a police officer.
He stressed that the recent tragedies are a result of the actions of a few officers, not entire police departments, who do not uphold the integrity demanded by the uniform they wear. When officers in Connecticut violate their department’s code of conduct, they are disciplined, he said. Throughout his tenure as union president, he said, he has drafted eight resignations for troopers who “did not belong on the job.”
Yet, the actions of the individual officers discussed in national media have had the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of the officers he represents. He said the mentality of officers has shifted away from proactive policing.
Several police officers interviewed expressed the same sentivment: If an officer is worried he will be condemned for his actions, he may hesitate to use a weapon, consequently putting his own life and the lives of others in danger.
“[Police officers] may wait to respond,” YPD officer Earl Reed said. “Maybe then it’s too late.”
On Jan. 4, Esserman led a small group of NHPD officers to the funeral of two New York Police Department officers who had been shot in the head by civilians. According to The New York Times, the killer had traveled from Baltimore with the intention of murdering police officers.
“They were killed because of their color, which was neither black nor white, but blue,” Esserman said, referring to the risk that comes with wearing a police uniform.
In their annual report, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund found that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty in 2014 had risen from the year before. Including the two NYPD officers, 117 officers were killed last year, compared to 102 in 2013. Deliberate ambush-style attacks, as seen with the two NYPD officers killed, was the top cause of felonious officer death for the fifth year in a row. Fifteen such attacks occurred in 2014, the highest number of deliberate attacks in a decade.
In a press release accompanying the statistics, NLEOMF Chairman and CEO Craig Floyd said he was concerned that an anti-government sentiment across America may have encouraged “weak-minded individuals” to engage in violent assaults against police.
“Enough is enough,” Floyd said. “We need to tone down the rhetoric, and rally in support of law enforcement and against lawlessness.”
But Matthews insists that the public did not always react negatively toward police. In the months following 9/11, Matthews said, the American public was full of admiration for emergency services.
Sept. 11, 2001 is marked by NLEOMF as the deadliest day in law enforcement history. Seventy-one officers were killed in their attempts to rescue those trapped in the World Trade Center, and another officer died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Philadelphia.
In the years since, Matthews said, it has been disheartening to have seen public perception of the force change so rapidly.
“Fourteen years later, because of a few unfortunate incidents in other parts of the country, … people are angry with us and want to hurt us,” he said. “It is not the majority of the public, but there are some people who think all police are bad.”
But, many black communities across America argue there is good reason for the shift. Mapping Police Violence, an organization that collects data from departments across the country, calculated that over 304 African-Americans were killed at the hands of law enforcement in 2014. At least 101 of them were unarmed, according to the data.
Furthermore, a recent study analyzing traffic stops in the state revealed that the NHPD stopped minorities at a higher rate than the state average in 2014. Over the course of the year, the NHPD stopped 11,159 motorists. Just over 63 percent of those were minorities, and 45.5 percent were black — the highest percentage reported in the state. Even after New Haven’s demographics were taken into account, the NHPD’s traffic stop data was still out of the ordinary.
For Karléh Wilson ’16, these statistics present a serious problem. Wilson marched alongside New Haven protesters in remembrance of Jones, holding a sign saying “think of all the cases that weren’t recorded.” Her brother, a young African-American male, recently turned 20 and is now in a demographic statistically most at-risk of dying at the hands of law enforcement.
“I love my brother to death,” she said. “It really worries me that he isn’t safe because of his color.”
THE WANTS OF A COMMUNITY
Wilson is not the only one concerned about the police’s interactions with the black community. On April 18, roughly a dozen African-American residents gathered in Stetson Library on Dixwell Avenue. Seated between books highlighting African-American leaders, the group discussed police-community relations in light of one recent incident in New Haven.
Just over a month before, on St. Patrick’s Day, 15-year old Teandrea Cornelius was aggressively pushed to the ground by NHPD officer Josh Smereczynsky in an arrest outside the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant on Church Street. In a video of the arrest, which occurred during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Smereczynsky can be seen finding a knife in Cornelius’ purse after slamming her to the ground. Whether or not Smereczynsky knew Cornelius was carrying a weapon before he pushed her is still contested.
For those present in the library, Smereczynsky’s actions reflected a systemic problem within the police department. As the meeting continued, those present shared their concerns about how the NHPD dealt with the events of St. Patrick’s Day. According to state Rep. Robyn Porter, who represents Hamden and New Haven, the controversial arrest has further torn relationships between community and police.
“I’m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a female,” she said. “[Watching that video] made my stomach hurt.”
Despite receiving an invitation, no representative from the police department was present at this meeting. Those at the meeting said this demonstrated a lack of willingness from the NHPD to engage in conversation.
But police have not been absent from every community discussion. Both Esserman and YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins attended “Ferguson and Beyond,” a teach-in hosted by Yale’s African American Studies Department on March 31. At the teach-in, which drew over 100 students and community members, Esserman and Higgins asked the attendees for their perspectives on their relationship with the community.
“When the community doesn’t believe in the behavior of its police officers, … it erodes the confidence in [the police department],” Higgins said. “It is the exact opposite of community wellness.”
Higgins added that instead of only focusing on instances of police brutality against African-Americans, urban areas first need to fix systemic inequalities in education and social mobility that can put black youths at risk of falling into crime. He said the most frequent type of crime in urban communities is violence perpetrated by young, black males against other young, black males.
Chris Garaffa, a member of ANSWER CT (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and an attendee of “Ferguson and Beyond,” told the News that Higgins’ comment puts unnecessary blame on the black community. He said incidents like the one on St. Patrick’s Day demonstrate clear cases of police brutality that warrant discussion.
After videos of the St. Patrick’s Day arrest began to surface online, protesters flooded City Hall on March 25. When they refused to leave, Mayor Toni Harp agreed to remove Smereczynsky from his patrol duty. However, the officer was exonerated and allowed to return to work by the end of the month, after an internal affairs investigation ruled that Smereczynsky acted in accordance with the training he had received.
The decision divided the police and community activists once more. During the press conference announcing Smereczynsky’s exoneration, over 80 police officers and their allies swarmed City Hall protesting Harp and Esserman’s decision to remove him from the streets in the first place. When the press conference was over, supporters of the police remained on the steps of City Hall for over 45 minutes. They were met by community activists who, in turn, were protesting the exoneration.
When activists like Garaffa shouted that the exoneration was an example of acceptance of police brutality, officers responded with chants of “she had a knife.”
Despite the conflicts, the protesters from both sides showed discontent with how the city handled the police department, pointing to Harp and Esserman as key players. The police union condemned Esserman for visiting Cornelius’ family to apologize during an investigation, and for appearing to ignore the concerns of his own officer. They also shouted “we want a mayor, not a puppet,” condemning Harp for responding to the demands of protesters who swarmed her office.
“We feel badly disrespected, and our backs were turned against — we really felt we were abandoned on this,” Louis Cavaliere Jr., NHPD union president, said at the March 30 protest.
But community members interviewed said they too felt disrespected.
During the protest, Newhallville resident Nazim Muhammad told the News that he was disappointed to hear some of the police officers shouting derogatory comments toward members of the community. Officers called him, and other residents, “thug” and told him to “go back to the ghetto and get a job.”
Garaffa added that the actions of the police department could not be ignored. Furthermore, he said, should a case of police brutality arise in the future, the officer involved should be immediately removed from patrol.
“We want to see justice when someone is brutalized and when someone is killed,” he said. “We want to see these officers taken off the streets.”
Both the police department and local activists have publicly said they are dissatisfied with the way the city administration has responded to incidents like the one at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Many New Haven activists have expressed their desire for a civilian review board, which would require each police investigation to be conducted by a group of citizens and criminal justice experts, instead of police officers. In addition, the group would have subpoena power — a writ issued by any government agency allowing the board to order testimony from officers under investigation.
While this movement has seen little progress, Esserman said there have been advancements toward providing body cameras to each NHPD officer, another movement supported by legislators across the nation in the months following the Ferguson shooting.
One bill before the Connecticut General Assembly is S.B. 770, which would require each officer in the state to wear a body camera. State Sen. Gary Winfield, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in an email that the bill “could not come at a better time.” He said body cameras would protect both law enforcement and their communities.
“In many instances of violent interactions between police and community, locally and nationally, intent to harm is hard to prove,” he said. “The use of body cameras will help to counter that uncertainty and protect both parties.”
The main argument in support of body cameras is that they would reduce confusion in cases like the shooting of Michael Brown, where there is no video evidence of what occurred.
In addition, Harp noted it is important to consider body cameras because eyewitness recordings often only provide a snapshot of a police-civilian encounter. When a video goes viral, the reality of the events that occurred becomes publicly debated.
“Everybody else has a camera,” Harp said. “It’s really appropriate from my perspective for the police to also have a camera.”
Esserman echoed Harp’s sentiments, adding that extensive research has demonstrated when body cameras are used most effectively. He said he is confident that the NHPD will slowly begin integrating them into the force.
The Police Foundation, a national research organization spearheaded by Jim Bueermann, examined the use of body cameras in Rialto, California. Their research revealed that in the year after the cameras were introduced in February 2012, the number of complaints of police misconduct fell by 88 percent. The use of force by police fell by almost 60 percent over the same time frame.
Deputy Chief of the Hartford Police Department Brian Foley said he has heavily considered requiring his officers to wear body cameras because the public is asking for them in order to feel safe. In recent months, the same demands have surfaced at Yale. In January, a YPD officer was accused of unnecessarily holding a gun to Tahj Blow ’16, whom the officers claimed matched the description of a burglary suspect in Trumbull College. On Twitter, New York Times columnist Charles Blow said Tahj, his son, had been “accosted” by a YPD officer, adding hashtags associated with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
An internal affairs investigation revealed that the officer was acting in accordance with YPD policy. He was holding his gun in the “low ready” position — not holding it directly at Blow — and his finger was not placed on the trigger. Still, the University said it was committed to ensuring students on campus continue to feel safe.
An ad hoc panel — tasked with analyzing the YPD’s internal investigation and providing feedback to the University — recommended that the YPD institute body cameras for all officers. When the report was released, students interviewed by the News expressed support for the proposal.
However, officers have said body cameras are not without their faults.
Matthews said one problem with mandatory body cameras is that citizens could be recorded giving private information to the police. This information could be acquired by anyone through the Freedom of Information Act, allowing private conversations with police — including reports of sexual assault and domestic abuse — to be made public.
“Everyone has the right to a confidential conversation with a law enforcement officer,” he said. “Sometimes, public voice is the only way we receive evidence.”
COMMUNITY POLICING: THE FUTURE?
In December, President Barack Obama created a task force to research 21st-century policing. The task force’s interim report recommended that police departments establish community policing, which the NHPD currently follows. According to the report, community policing should provide a code of conduct centered on four principles: treating people with dignity and respect, giving individuals a voice during encounters with police, being neutral and transparent in decision-making and conveying trustworthy motives.
“Research demonstrates that these principles lead to relationships in which the community trusts that officers are honest, unbiased and lawful,” the report reads. “The community therefore feels obligated to follow the law and the dictates of legal authorities and is more willing to cooperate with and engage those authorities.”
Not everyone is convinced that community policing works in practice. Instead of introducing officers to their community, Garaffa said, requiring police officers to walk on the streets provides more opportunities for negative encounters like the one seen on St. Patrick’s Day.
He called community policing a “misguided ideal,” and said that even though police departments envision friendly officers walking through neighborhoods engaging with people, the reality is quite different.
“People are afraid because the police are crawling our streets,” he said.
Despite the recent protests and complaints, the NHPD has been nationally recognized as a model for urban community policing — on March 12, the NHPD’s community policing model was featured on the cover of The Wall Street Journal.
Vanita Gupta ’96, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said at a Yale Law School conference last week called “Policing Post-Ferguson” that Esserman is one of the most “important police leaders in the country” because of his work on community policing. Esserman was recently appointed to the National Advisory Board of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a national effort to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve. He was also invited by the Department of Justice to provide assistance and advice to police departments in St. Louis County.
But, Esserman said that any success of community policing in New Haven is not about him. He said it is about the individual officers who walk the neighborhood streets and get to know the people who live there.
“We’re not looking for people to fall in love with the [NHPD] or the chief, we’re looking for them to build relationships with their officer,” he said. “That’s real community policing.”