A dozen New Haveners joined Mayor Justin Elicker on Friday for coffee, donuts and a conversation about the Elm City. The event — the fifth of its kind since Elicker assumed office — focused on issues of police brutality, affordable housing and equity in workforce development, among others.
The Dunkin’ Donuts dialogue was the latest installment in Elicker’s attempt to live out his campaign promise of transparency and accessibility in City Hall. Friday’s event provided an opportunity for residents to offer policy suggestions, explain challenges they would like to see the mayor address and make personal calls for justice.
One of those calls came from New Haven resident Larry Rice, who was falsely accused of public indecency and risk of injury to a child in July 2018. While all charges have been dropped, the decorated army vet said that the experience has profoundly affected his family, ability to work and overall well-being. Rice came to Friday’s coffee chat, he told Elicker, in the hopes that the mayor could help him find justice.
“The police officers that racially profiled me are still on your force,” Rice said. “They haven’t lost one check — I lost my whole life.”
Rice criticized the police department’s internal complaint process as allowing officers to police themselves, particularly given that the officer responsible for handling his case is friends with the officer who arrested him, he said. NHPD spokesperson Shayna Kendall did not immediately respond to the News’ request for comment.
This type of criticism has a long history in New Haven. Following decades of demands from community members and months of contentious debate, the city created an independent Civilian Review Board last January to oversee New Haven police officers and investigate police misconduct. Elicker noted on Friday that the CRB could be helpful in handling Rice’s case and that his administration had recently moved the CRB’s operations from the police department to City Hall.
Still, Rice voiced his doubts about whether law enforcement can treat black men fairly. Those doubts were exacerbated by the recent fatal shooting of 19-year-old Mubarak Soulemane down the street from his residence, he said on Friday. Elicker told Rice that he shared his outrage about police brutality and said that he attended protests following Soulemane’s death so that the state troopers involved would get more than just a “slap on the wrist.” The troopers are currently under state investigation.
In addition to concerns about law enforcement personnel, Rice expressed his hope of receiving compensation. The arrest has rendered him unable to perform his job due to mental health difficulties, he said. He added that the relative lack of press coverage after charges were dropped further distorted his public image and made it difficult for him to participate in activities he used to, such as youth mentorship.
“The City of New Haven made me a monster,” Rice said. “All the charges are dropped. How do I feed my kids right now? I do have a job but I can’t do it. I’m waiting for justice.”
Elicker said that he could not deliver justice immediately but promised to look into the situation.
In addition to police brutality and the criminal justice system, residents at Friday’s coffee chat voiced concerns about affordable housing and workforce development — two of Elicker’s highest priorities as mayor. Consistent with his stated agenda, Elicker on Friday told New Haven Resident that he plans to upgrade code enforcement to hold landlords accountable to their tenants.
The mayor also hopes to build more affordable housing in the city and noted that a vacant lot near Union Station could provide an ideal site for construction. This, he said, would be in keeping with Gov. Ned Lamont’s vision of building new affordable housing units near transportation hubs. But new construction is not enough to solve the problem, Elicker said.
“The other part of affordable housing is people being able to afford the housing,” he told coffee chat attendees on Friday morning.
This led the group to a conversation about workforce development. Equitable development has long since been part of Elicker’s message, going back to his campaign concept of two New Havens.
For the Elm City, construction jobs are an essential element of justice through job creation. In 2001, the city committed to competitive bidding among women and minority-owned businesses for projects valued under $150,000; for those valued over that figure, contractors must demonstrate efforts to reach a 25 percent minority subcontractor goal.
Eclipse Development Group President Doug Gray, who came to Friday’s event, is working towards that goal in his New Haven projects — which he said will collectively provide around 120 full-time jobs — but that it is difficult to reach. Gray has conducted three Occupational Safety and Health Administration trainings to prepare locals to take those jobs, he said.
New Haven resident Rodney Williams praised Gray’s efforts but expressed his concerns about an over-reliance on construction jobs, given that both the jobs and construction waves themselves are temporary. He also noted that minority residents have to “beg” for jobs as they do not typically run the projects themselves.
Throughout his campaign and tenure, Elicker has consistently put workforce equity at the top of his priority list. Friday’s event demonstrated that residents share those same concerns. Elicker plans to continue to host coffee conversations and other similar events to take the pulse of the New Haven community.
The administration has not yet released the date for the next coffee chat.
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