The Hamden Legislative Council originally scheduled a regular budget meeting on Monday. But following last week’s shooting involving a Hamden police officer and a Yale police officer, community activists used the meeting as an opportunity to share their grievances with Hamden officials and demand policing reform within the Hamden Police Department.
Around 200 community activists and Hamden residents filled the legislative chamber to testify for hours in front of their lawmakers regarding Tuesday’s officer-involved shooting incident. Attendees at Monday’s meeting demanded justice for Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon — the unarmed individuals who were shot at by the two police officers — and improvements in the dynamic between the police and the residents of the New Haven suburb.
Those who testified argued that Hamden — despite a previous lack of high-profile incidents — has long been a foothold for racist policing. Community organizers shared their experiences with policing in the area through the years and asked for immediate and longer-term changes in the structure and culture of policing, in Hamden and in similar neighborhoods and cities at large.
“It’s just not safe for black people in America,” Rhonda Caldwell, a resident of Hamden, said. “No one, no black person, is exempt from that.”
In the early hours of April 16, a Hamden police officer and a Yale police officer shot at Washington and Witherspoon on Dixwell Avenue on the New Haven side of the boundary between New Haven and Hamden. Washington, who was shot in the torso, is currently in stable condition. Since then, activists have held rallies and protests in both towns and called on authorities across them — and from the University — to respond to their demands.
At an event on Sunday at the site of the shooting — the intersection of Dixwell Avenue and Argyle Street — community groups led by Black Lives Matter New Haven and including People Against Police Brutality, Justice for Jayson and the Connecticut Bail Fund shared their goals and called for unity moving forward.
“We have to keep the momentum going to get the justice that we need and to ensure that these two police officers do not get to walk the beat again and endanger … lives,” Kerry Ellington of People Against Police Brutality told a crowd of roughly 100 people on Sunday. “It is not a right to be a police officer. It is a privilege. [Yale officer Terrance Pollock’s and Hamden officer Devin Eaton’s] privilege[s] should be revoked.”
In anticipation of Monday’s budget meeting, on Saturday, the Hamden Legislative Council posted on its Facebook page that though the original meeting was scheduled to deliberate the police budget, “Given recent events, it’s clear that public interest in the police department is about more than the budget right now.” The post announced that the budget meeting would instead function as a “listening forum” which will “hopefully serve as a learning moment for the police department and the council” and “an important first step in the larger discussion about the relationship between the police and community.”
At the Monday meeting, consistent with earlier demands, activists asked for the firing of Eaton and the public release of body camera footage. Eaton is currently on administrative leave, according to the New Haven Independent.
Though footage of the incident from a nearby security camera at the Stand by Me Foundation has circulated online and on social media, the state has not released any video footage from either police officer’s body camera. The state’s attorney office, led by New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, took over the formal investigation of the shooting.
New Haven mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES’10 SOM’10 wrote in an April 19 op-ed in the New Haven Independent that Griffin — who is based out of New Haven — should not be leading the investigation because of his office’s daily interaction with the local police departments. But local leaders, including Mayor Toni Harp and the Rev. Boise Kimber, have publicly expressed their confidence in Griffin to do Washington and Witherspoon justice in interviews with the New Haven Register.
In addition to transparency in the state’s investigation, activists at Monday’s meeting also demanded that at least $50,000 be spent on a third-party investigation.
Hamden Mayor Curt Leng, Hamden Acting Police Chief John Cappiello and Hamden Deputy Chief Bo Kicak attended the meeting.
Leng told the News on Monday evening that he is in frequent contact with the state’s attorney. He said that the conclusions of the investigation and body camera footage will likely be released Tuesday or Wednesday.
Yale Law School student and organizer Samantha Grayman LAW ’20 told the News that she and other law students filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday for the state to release all footage related to the incident. At Sunday’s gathering, Grayman also announced a civilian complaint campaign against the Yale Police Department as a joint effort between Yale students and New Haven residents. She emphasized that student activists’ top priority is to support community organizers in their demands.
Leng described the incident to the News as “horrifying and shocking to the core and something that I’d never hoped we would have to deal with in Hamden,” adding that he did not believe something like it would happen “here.”
Activists present underscored that this specific shooting was more than just a single anomaly. Attendees noted that the troubled nature of racist policing in communities across the country has its roots in historical and societal prejudice. Residents said that although the issue has come to a head with the shooting, the local community has long been the subject of racist policing.
Activists argue that low-income neighborhoods like Newhallville, where Washington and Witherspoon were shot, have long suffered from poor economic situations enforced by the legacies of cultural and systemic racism. The practices of police departments and other long-standing institutions — like Yale — perpetuate societal racism and their implications, some attendees argued.
“Yale has no business shooting at New Haven civilians after the gentrification and economic devastation [it has caused],” said Ashtan Towles ’19, who testified as a representative of the newly formed student group Black Students for Disarmament at Yale.
Among other demands, Towles called for the Yale Police Department to fire Pollock immediately, fully disarm and stay within reasonable campus boundaries, echoing the demands enumerated in Black Students for Disarmament’s public letter to President Peter Salovey, Chief of Police Ronnell Higgins and senior members of the Yale administration. Her requests drew loud applause from the community crowd.
Leng did not make any promises in response to specific demands, some of which were directed toward him or Cappiello by name.
“The training and the community police efforts and the efforts to work together with the city of New Haven … until people see that those actions are taken and there has been an effort to rebuild trust in the community, I don’t think anything I say today is going to comfort anyone,” Leng told the News.”
Rodney Williams, Witherspoon’s uncle, stressed on Monday that even though his nephew was not shot, he has been traumatized for the rest of his life. Still, Williams said that he has faith in the council and in the community to bring about progress.
“I know you guys are in a bad spot, but I honestly feel — and my family feels — that you are going to do the right thing,” Williams said, addressing the panel of city officials. “These people behind me, until they start seeing something moving in the direction that it needs to move, you guys are going to be paying a lot of overtime for marches.”
Hamden was incorporated in 1786.
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