Law enforcement officials from across the country, state and city met with African-American community leaders at a Monday forum to discuss how to strengthen police relationships with minority communities.
The four-hour forum -— hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut and the Greater New Haven Clergy Association — featured keynote addresses from NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock and James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. State and local law enforcement officials, regional NAACP leaders, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, clergy members and professors from Yale Law School and Yale College also spoke at the forum. Deirdre Daly, Connecticut’s U.S. attorney, opened the forum by acknowledging the challenging divide between communities of color and law enforcement. Though speakers addressed strategies to close this divide, the forum focused on early intervention policies as a means to prevent violent crime and gang activity. New Haven, and Connecticut at large, were lauded for their progress in these areas.
“We in the African-American community have to give new light and life to the narrative that black lives matter when we are the ones doing the killing,” Brock said. “We must double down on our efforts to end gun violence in our neighborhoods, but we must also address aggressive policing by those charged to serve and protect us.”
Brock commended Gov. Dannell Malloy for his legislative record, including the Second Chance Act — which legislates the distribution of federal grants to organizations that aim to cut recidivism — and law enforcement accountability laws. Brock also recognized the impact of student activism at universities across the country.
“When we try to quash and not support the activism of young people who are standing up for what they believe in, yearning to be free and to be heard we do a disservice to the democracy we have in this nation,” she said.
The first panel discussion focused on the effect violent neighborhoods have on children and the early interventions that could prevent them from entering a life of crime.
Youth educators should pay attention to the four indicators that suggest a child could be at risk of trauma, said Gemma Lumpkin, executive manager of district strategy and coordination for the New Haven Public School superintendent’s office. These indicators include chronic absenteeism, bad behavior at school, academic failure and general evidence of trauma, she said.
Lumpkin noted that education experts are now more aware of the harms of excluding children from class because of tardiness or absences. Instead, she said, the strengths of emotional and mental support as a necessary alternative are becoming more recognized.
Given the high poverty rates in New Haven, the impact of poverty on childhood education must be examined, Lumpkin said.
“Our young people need to be a priority, and they’re not,” NHPS board member Alicia Carballo said.
The second panel gave attendees an overview of how civil rights investigations and prosecutions are conducted. Lieutenant Dave DelVecchia of the Connecticut state police and Michael Gustafson, the first assistant U.S. attorney, noted that Connecticut’s laws have been changed to make such cases more fair. Such changes include the institution of body cameras on police officers, which was passed into law in October, and the passage of legislation that requires investigations involving law enforcement to be conducted by prosecutors who are not from the district in which the incident occurred.
Gustafson said it is illegal for law enforcement officials to willfully deprive a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution. But in civil rights cases, Gustafson said, it is often difficult to prove an officer deprived someone of their rights intentionally.
Panel members were asked questions about alleged and proven incidences of civil rights violations at the hands of police. Concerns about systemic, willful deprivation of civil rights were also discussed.
Ndidi Moses, an assistant U.S. attorney and the civil rights coordinator for the Civil Division at the U.S. Attorney’s New Haven Office, said her office aims to help eradicate institutional and systemic racism. But given the nature of civil rights cases, she said, this pursuit can be lengthy.
The third panel addressed Project Longevity — a nonprofit committed to decreasing gun violence in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford — and the impact partnerships between law enforcement and the community can have. Andrew Papachristos, an associate sociology professor at the University, said this impact is most salient during a process Project Longevity refers to as a “call-in.”
During “call-ins,” a group of young men are invited to meet with a group of people from their community to hear their advice on how to break free from a life of crime. Among these community members, at least three perspectives are featured, the panel explained: the “voice of law enforcement,” the “voice of pain” — which could be a mother who has lost her child to gun violence — and the “voice of redemption,” an individual who has walked away from crime.
The program links participants with social services, if desired. But if the offer is refused, law enforcement officials vow to hold that individual accountable for subsequent acts of violence.
“It’s focusing on those that are both most violent and those that are most at risk and realizing that those people are the same person,” New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman said.
The effectiveness of Project Longevity’s tactics was shown in an October study conducted by Michael Sierra-Arevalo GRD ’18, Yanick Charette, a postdoctoral associate at the Law School, and Papachristos. The study found that the implementation of Project Longevity is associated with fewer shootings and homicides.
Though Project Longevity is not the sole answer to the problem of violent crime in New Haven, Papachristos said it is a step in the right direction.
Comey, who spoke toward the end of the conference, said there is a rift between law enforcement and communities, which he described as two diverging lines. He said each time a police officer is attacked or killed in the line of duty, one line veers further away from the other. Similarly, any time there is a perceived or real misstep by the police, the other line pulls away.
Comey said cities like New Haven provide a sound opportunity for law enforcement officials and community leaders to bend those two lines back together.