This week marks the final period of donation collection for the Yale Police Department’s fourth annual Turkey Drive ahead of Thanksgiving, one of the many community outreach initiatives that the YPD has pushed since hiring two community engagement officers last year.
Two officers, Martin Parker and Martha Ross, head up the department’s interactions with the Yale and New Haven communities and often attend local community events as YPD liaisons. This year, the two officers have already hosted a trick-or-treat event on Halloween along with the Turkey Drive and attended the Stetson Harvest Festival in October and the National Night Out in August. The New Haven Police Department has increased its own community engagement plans as well. The growing efforts come as protests against the YPD, the NHPD and the Hamden Police Department continue in response to the officers-involved shooting of two unarmed New Haven residents in April.
“We’ve been tasked with just building relationships and foundations with the communities that we serve,” Parker told the News in an interview. “When we talk about communities, we are speaking of the New Haven community and the Yale community, and … how can we bring together the New Haven and Yale communities in positive events where we’re now truly becoming a cohesive community.”
By order of Chief Ronnell Higgins, the YPD hired Parker and Ross as community engagement officers last October. Both worked as patrol officers for the YPD before embarking on the new role. Higgins highlighted the officers’ use of social media, which “enables the department to share, communicate and connect.”
According to Parker, the YPD has focused on attending and participating in New Haven community events over the summer and fall before transitioning to building bonds with the Yale community over the winter. The YPD’s trick-or-treat event was the Department’s sixth event of that week, and police officers also participated in a number of fall-themed events across the Elm City, including a similar Halloween event at Wilbur Cross High School.
One of the team’s main events is the annual Turkey Drive. According to Parker, YPD gave away 223 turkeys and 90 full meals with the help of donations and volunteers from Yale and the city of New Haven during last year’s drive. On November 22, the Department will be handing out this year’s turkeys and non-perishable foods at Wexler-Grant School. The deadline to donate to the drive is Nov. 15.
According to Parker, the community engagement team is still looking to grow and build partnerships across the university and the Elm City.
Increased police outreach efforts come in the wake of protests that have rocked both New Haven and Hamden in recent months. These protests were sparked by April’s officers-involved shooting in the New Haven neighborhood of Newhallville. A Hamden police officer and a Yale police officer fired rounds at two unarmed New Haven residents in a vehicle — Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon. Last month, a report released by the State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin charged the HPD officer — Devin Eaton — with one count of assault in the first degree and two counts of reckless endangerment. YPD officer Terrance Pollock was not criminally charged, and both officers are currently on administrative leave from their respective departments.
The release of the report prompted a revival of protests that initially began in April, with protesters again demanding the immediate termination of both officers, increased police responsiveness to civilian complaints and limits on the jurisdiction of police departments.
The NHPD has focused some of its outreach efforts in the Newhallville area, where tensions post-shooting have flared. According to a press release from NHPD spokesperson, Shayna Kendall, the NHPD is making an effort to “[bring] healing between police officers and community members where there may have been a history of strained relationships.”
At the beginning of this month, NHPD officers banded together with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church members to help an elderly couple in Newhallville renovate their home. The couple, Charlie and Denise Redd, needed construction work done on their upstairs apartment in order to make it livable for their granddaughter, who is moving in to care for the couple in their ailing health. Officers also joined church members for dinner and trivia games the night before.
Kendall told the News that this particular event was part of the NHPD’s involvement with Building Community — a national chaplaincy initiative that seeks to improve police-community relations through local home repair projects.
August’s National Night Out Campaign, in which both YPD and NHPD participated, was another national scheme hoping to foster better relations between communities and police departments. The event, at Lincoln-Bassett Community School, included face painting, cotton candy and a bouncy castle as police officers worked to educate New Haven schoolchildren and residents about community safety.
However, some prominent New Haven police accountability activists did not have a favorable outlook on police outreach efforts.
Jeannia Fu, an activist with the Connecticut Bail Fund who has been involved in the protests following the shooting of Washington and Witherspoon, told the News that police outreach was merely a smokescreen to distract from the department’s faults.
“Getting communities to trust police more is not the solution,” Fu told the News in an interview. “This institution is inherently about violence and is basically the enforcement arm of white supremacy. They’ll try any strategy, any trick in the book to get people on board.”
Longtime local activist Kerry Ellington of People Against Police Brutality viewed the efforts as trivializing to those that have suffered from police brutality, calling it “completely offensive” that police departments believe that conversations could repair, “real physical and psychological harm that’s been done for generations to black and brown communities.”
An outreach event by the New Haven division of the FBI, the YPD and the Connecticut State Police Department was scheduled to take place on Friday to “build and strengthen relationships between communities and law enforcement.” However, at a protest at Hamden Town Hall on Wednesday night, Ellington cited offensive language in the event description, and claimed that online backlash from activists had led officials to postpone the event.
The Yale Police Department is located at 101 Ashmun Street.
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