As the news of Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict captures the attention of the nation, public officials and organizers are reflecting on possible police reforms for Elm City.
In the early evening on Tuesday, former Minneapolis police officer Chauvin received his verdict from the jury after Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, until he died. Chauvin was charged on three counts — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter— and found guilty on all three by a 12-person jury. After Floyd was murdered in May 2020, protests over police brutality erupted across the nation and in New Haven.
On Tuesday, local political leaders and organizers reacted positively to the verdict but underscored that work towards racial justice and police reform is far from over.
The reaction to the verdict
After the verdict was announced, New Haven residents gathered on the New Haven Green to reflect on its implications for policing in the city.
Black Lives Matter New Haven chapter co-founder Ala Ochumare thanked jury members for what she called a “hard decision to make.”
“Those people [on the jury] decided to really humanize George [Floyd] and humanize what really happened, and hold [Chauvin] accountable,” Ochumare told the News. “As much support as they’ll get, they’ll get double the amount of hate and aggression.”
Ochumare said she felt “joyfully indifferent” about the verdict, because of all the work that still needed to be done. She called Tuesday’s event, organized by BLM New Haven, a community space where people could be together and discuss the verdict.
Jack Davidson, senior pastor of Spring Glen United Church-Christ in Hamden, said that it was important for him to be present on the Green — especially as a white person in allyship with communities of color. Davidson said it was important not only to show up when “outrage is obvious,” but also when it is not obvious — because he believes the guilty verdict does not “absolve the systemic racism.” Davidson said he was wary of the verdict leading to complacency, and reiterated that the result does not provide justice for other victims of police brutality, such as Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo.
Davidson highlighted that the past week has been especially important for the fight against police brutality in the city, as the second anniversary of the Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon police shooting by Yale and Hamden police passed last week.
In a Tuesday afternoon statement issued shortly after the verdict was announced, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker recalled May 25, 2020 — the date Floyd was murdered. Elicker said that “that day, and those that followed, have fundamentally driven the national call for addressing racism.”
“Today’s news means that we have one slight semblance of justice within this journey for equality in America,” Elicker wrote. “I commend the jury for their commitment during these many days of revisiting a painful moment in recent history. We all remember where we were when George Floyd was murdered, and we all will remember when Derek Chauvin was brought to justice. Savor this moment, ready yourself, because we still must keep fighting.”
Elicker was also present at Tuesday’s event on the Green.
In a statement on behalf of the Board of Alders, Ward 27 Majority Leader Richard Furlow described the verdict as a “bittersweet victory” as it illustrates that there are still lengths to go in the fight for justice.
“We will not have true justice and accountability until there is an enacted plan for comprehensive criminal justice reform with public safety for all, good jobs for our communities in need, affordable quality housing, access to healthcare and environmental justice,” Furlow wrote. “This is what the Board of Alders stands for and what we will continue to fervently work toward.”
Yale University President Peter Salovey said in a Tuesday night email to the Yale community that at Yale, actions are being taken “across multiple fronts” — including the reshaping of “major aspects” of campus policing and the continued efforts of the Belonging at Yale initiatives.
“I am relieved that a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers found him guilty of George Floyd’s murder, but I am no less heartbroken over the number of Black lives that have been cut short due to police violence,” Salovey wrote in the email. “We must continue to focus our energy on addressing racism, injustice, and abuse of power by the police and others in positions of public trust and authority.”
Police reform in the past year
The mayor took Chauvin’s verdict as an opportunity to emphasize that the NHPD is “not perfect” but working on reform.
He highlighted the Police Commission, which includes community members and experts in policing reform, as an example of how the city is attempting to take steps forward. The Commission has been working on setting up a Crisis Response Team, Elicker added, to acknowledge that some 911 calls are better aided by social service professionals and not police officers.
“Most importantly, we recognize that safety means ensuring our community has the resources to thrive,” he said. “I am committed to improving what I do have authority over here in New Haven.”
After the verdict on Tuesday, Elicker said at a separate press event that the NHPD has made changes to push forward police accountability. He specifically emphasized reforms to the NHPD’s deescalation training program, which had been halted for a year due to the pandemic. NHPD Police Chief Renee Dominguez said that the program first started three years ago and was taught in the New Haven Police Academy. During March 2020, efforts to improve the program were reinitiated — however, the program changes were not enacted because the training required in-person components.
Dominguez explained that reforms on the training are rooted in a more “customer service-based type of training” — a deescalation model that is specialized depending on the situation. Dominguez said that the department needed to adapt their training to better respond to different types of stressors that can make a person or situation hostile.
Raymond Hassett, a retired NHPD officer who will lead the training, stated that in contrast to the former deescalation program, there is now an emphasis on “human to human connection.”
“When there’s a connection between two human beings, there’s trust,” Hassett said. “Trust is the foundation we’re looking for. Trust is the foundation in customer service that we’re looking to build our bond, build our brand. So when you call for the police, when we show up, you’re glad we’re here, instead of saying, ‘oh, not that again.’ So it’s a shift for us.”
Other visions for reform
Other city officials expressed different visions for the future of policing.
Karen DuBois-Walton ’89, leader of New Haven’s housing authority and a potential candidate in the 2021 city mayoral race, wrote in a press release that today’s decision was encouraging but it “does not bring Mr. Floyd back to us.”
“And it doesn’t bring back Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Malik Jones, or the all too many people attached to names that are known across our city and country for the police violence that ended their lives,” she wrote. “A guilty verdict today doesn’t stop the next police killing, here or anywhere else across the country.”
DuBois-Walton is advocating for $10 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan to be diverted to police accountability and gun violence reduction programs, including funds for community-based organizations like Black Lives Matter New Haven and Ice the Beef, which address issues surrounding police brutality and work to support youths in the city respectively.
On Tuesday, DuBois-Walton told the News that the verdict allowed her to “exhale.”
“If we didn’t get [this verdict], I just like, I wasn’t sure where to find hope,” DuBois-Walton said. “So I come out to exhale for that. And also realize that that doesn’t change what fundamentally needs to be changed.”
DuBois-Walton noted that last Wednesday, Robert Banks was accused of shoplifting underwear at Walmart and was chased by an officer with a gun and a taser. The New Haven Independent reported that the officer put his knee on the man’s back and had a taser in one hand and a gun in the other. Christian Carfora, the officer, has not been placed on leave, according to the Independent. Banks told the Independent that he didn’t know why the officer thought he had a gun.
“We’re still trying to get to the root causes of why we dehumanize in such a way that we don’t see the humanity in people,” DuBois-Walton said. “Thank God for George Floyd’s family that Chauvin was held accountable. And with that same drive and passion, we got to keep at it.”
Despite reform efforts and the Chauvin verdict, for Sun Queen of BLM New Haven, the city and the nation still has a long way to go.
“Was accountability served, yes,” Queen, who helped co-found BLM New Haven, said. “Justice? No, George Floyd should still be alive.”
Black Lives Matter New Haven was established in 2015.
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