Participants from throughout the New Haven region crowded into the wooden meeting room of Hamden’s Whitneyville Community Commons for an opportunity to share their thoughts on the subject of police accountability, a topic that remains at the front of many local residents’ minds.

On Monday night, the New Haven Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s “Community Conversations” event brought representatives of the New Haven Police Department, a police-community relations expert and community members together to foster discussion, questions and a call to action. Hamden and the Greater New Haven area have struggled with policing and its impacts, particularly on people of color.

“Some days are harder than others,” Lorenzo Boyd — director of the University of New Haven’s Center for Advanced Policing and event panel member — admitted to the audience.

Referencing his experience working in building community-law enforcement relations, Boyd added that “we acknowledge that there is a lot of work to be done, but the way we start is by having community conversations.”

Attendees shared stories about their past experiences with law enforcement, citing reason for fear, apprehension and an expectation of prejudiced treatment. Those experiences shaped their own current attitudes towards law enforcement, many of which were negative. For many in the crowd, the night was an opportunity to directly express their frustrations from experiences with profiling, mistreatment and brutality from enforcement to a panel that included long-time members of the New Haven Police Department, Assistant Chiefs Renee Dominguez and Herb Sharp.

The timing of the event corresponds with mounting criticism against an embattled Hamden Police Department. Hamden, a suburb of New Haven, has had a long-fragmented relationship policing its shared border with New Haven — the low-income, historically red-lined district of Dixwell — and its residents. Boyd described the relationship between the Hamden police and residents of that area as endemic, rooted particularly in a history of violence in the area.

On Monday, at a press conference and protest organized at the Broadway shops, local activists rallied in support of the prosecution of a Hamden police officer Devin Eaton, who shot Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, two New Haven residents, in April, and will face a Judge on Nov. 5.

At the Hamden event, a division between law enforcement representatives and attendees made itself apparent when Sharp attempted to apologize to a community member who alleged his involvement in a traumatic incident in which she was dragged from her car by law enforcement, resulting in physical injury and trauma. Some in attendance rebuked Sharp for putting audience members in an uncomfortable situation by moving towards the accuser during his apology.

“While you were not intending to intimidate,” attendee Lily Holmes told Sharp, “something about the uniform, the badge, the gun and … you walking over to her made me very uncomfortable.”

To Boyd, however, the interaction demonstrated the potential that continued community-law enforcement discussion has in the slow path to improving community-law enforcement relations. He stressed that opportunities for community members and law enforcement officials to have personal interactions with one another limits their abilities to dehumanize the other party.

He told the News that measures like increasing implicit bias training in police departments often become a crutch for those speaking on the topic of reducing police brutality. Instead, the most impactful way to mend lapses in trust between community members and police department is to “build levels of empathy between” between the two through events such as scenario training and community discussions, Boyd said.

Michael Matthews, a lifelong resident of New Haven, came to the event with a story of his search for closure regarding his son’s death, which he claimed was a result of police action. Matthew’s only son, Jarelle Gibbs, perished as a passenger in a car that crashed in August of 2018, when the driver of the reportedly stolen car crashed.

In August of this year, the New Haven State’s Attorney’s office ruled that the Hamden Police Department’s pursuit of the vehicle had ended before the car’s driver veered off the road and crashed into a tree — a finding that separates the police department from any legal responsibility in Gibbs’ death.

Matthews came to share his hope that a mixture of community support and his own private legal action could press for an independent investigation on the extent of the Hamden Police Department’s pursuit of the vehicle. His story underlined community concerns for recognition of non-shooting deaths that may involve the police.

Reflecting this concern, the chapter’s call to action demanded compulsory data collection and automatic independent investigations for all non-shooting, police-involved deaths, along with bias training for officials.

Such actions are not required at the state level today, Dr. Karen DuBois-Walton ’89, Social Action Chair of the New Haven Alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority told the News. DuBois-Walton said that such guarantees could help improve community-police relations by empowering the calls for justice made by family members of victims and providing police departments with the “fairest” account of what occurred.

DuBois-Walton also called for participants to reflect on the event, extend the discussion of police-community relations with others in their community and mobilize in favor of policy that raises the bar of police accountability.

“The way we make change is by showing up,” she told the crowd as the event came to a close. “Everything good will happen when come together to raise awareness and that will create safety for our community and for officers.”

The New Haven Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority hosts monthly iterations of their “Community Conversations” event series.

Emiliano Gómez | emiliano.gomez@yale.edu