Distrust and Discourse: Fair and Esserman Talk Community Policing

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State Senator Gary Holder Winfield still makes sure that he is prepared for the possibility of a police encounter whenever he steps outside of his New Haven home.

“I’m the kind of person who knows not all cops are bad, but if I go out to take out the trash 1500 feet down the street and around the corner, I have my I.D. on me,” Holder says. “If I have that mentality, and I’m a state senator, we have a problem.”

The problem is one of trust, and that’s something Barbara Fair from My Brother’s Keeper-a criminal justice system reform activist group in the city-and New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman can agree on. What needs to be done about it is where the Yale University Undergraduate Prison Project hosted discussion-held before Holder and a group of about 25 students and New Haven community members in the Davenport College common room on Thursday afternoon-begins.

Since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the military grade response from the St. Louis Police Department that followed, the conversation has hit New Haven in the form of rallies held in solidarity with the protesters. On the day before Fair’s sit-down with Esserman, a group of activists from New York announced the start of the “October Month of Resistance” geared toward education and protest initiatives against mass incarceration and police brutality.

But if you ask longtime New Haven residents and activists like Fair, the issue of strained relations between police and the communities they work in did not come to New Haven from Ferguson or New York-it has already been here.

“I grew up here,” Fair says. “I saw New Haven when the police were you’re friends and everyone trusted them. That changed because there was a lot of corruption.”

And shootings-the fatal killing of Malik Jones in 1997, and the controversial Jewu Richardson case, just to name a couple. At Wednesday’s “October Month of Resistance” rally, activists read off a list from The New Haven Register of more than 30 cases of alleged police brutality in the city from 2008-2012. After Jones was gunned down by East Haven police officers in Fair Haven, a Civilian Review Board was set up, but without the power to subpoena, hold the law enforcement to investigation deadlines, or do much else beyond referring a complaint to the New Haven Police Department’s Internal Affairs division.

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As for the sentiments of cynicism regarding law enforcement, “community policing”-the central topic of the discussion-put the New Haven Police Department “in the business of building trust”, Esserman says.

“We’re not going to war with our communities but it’s seen that way,” he says. “It’s true what Barbara says-there’s no trust. There’s a sense that when the cops put on the uniform, they’re the enemy, and that’s a tragedy.”

But it wasn’t just a big public relations campaign, Esserman says. With New Haven’s homicides spiraling out of control, the Department knew that it had to start doing things differently, he says.

In 2011, 34 people were killed, and that’s outside of the 133 shootings that occurred in the city that year, according to the Department. Since then the numbers have come down-the Department reported 11 homicides and 49 shootings this year-but Esserman says that does not necessarily mean that, outside of a few success stories regarding beat officers, the overall trust level has risen. He calls it a relationship building “work in progress” that can take years.

“We arrest young men all the time and prison does them no good,” Esserman says. “We’re used to having a relationship where we spy on you and capture you. We’re not used to doing it how we do it now.”

But how exactly does the New Haven Police Department do it now?

It’s about immersing officers into the community in order to establish familiarity between them and city residents, Esserman says. First year officers walk the same beat every day, and are equipped with cell phones and business cards. While community members might be distrustful toward the Department as a whole, a more personal relationship with one officer might prompt them to report crimes and speed up investigations, he says.

“That’s the only way I know how to break down that anti-blue [feeling],” Esserman says.

But that tension might come from practices that imply that blue is anti-black and brown, Fair says. Case in point: America’s War on Drugs, which accounts for 48 percent of the Federal prison population.

Nationwide, the drug-related incarceration rate for blacks is 10 times that of whites, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU).  In 2010, 52 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana, which blacks are three times more likely than whites to be detained for, the ACLU says.

“We talk about community policing, but if you think about the War on Drugs and the racial disparity that goes on, and that there are specific people that get caught up in this war on drugs and specific people that don’t,” she says. “To me it’s almost like an oxymoron. How can you have police in the community that are supposedly protecting and serving, and yet be overpowered by police who are viewing the people in the community like a suspect?”

Esserman did not dispute Fair’s take on the War on Drugs, and called it “a disaster” that “has ruined the lives of many people”. In New Haven, community policing was about finding ways to root out violent crimes, he says.

One initiative was Project Longevity, the $750,000 program aimed at community members believed to be involved in gangs.

“We just invited them to dinner,” Esserman says. “The food was actually pretty good.”

He says it gave officers the opportunity to sit down and talk with individuals they considered “at risk”, and they weren’t the only ones with some advice for the young men.

“They heard from mothers who lost sons to gun violence,” Esserman says. “They were told how they’re at risk not only to get arrested, but get shot, and how there’s a community that cares for them.”

He describes it as “tough love” that came with a warning-officers made it clear that any act of violence would mean a crackdown on them and those they were affiliated with.

Fair says she sat in on one of Project Longevity’s meetings and observed more of the latter than anything else.

“Overwhelmingly, that was about the FBI, the DEA, prosecutors coming down on those young men,” Fair says. “I was sitting in the audience and saying to myself ‘wow, this is supposed to help these young men?’”

Many of whom come from poverty, she says.

“It’s not the people, it’s the conditions they live in,” Fair says. “A young man who has no hope, no future, living in the worst positions in their community, no hope for a job-why would they be afraid of someone telling them they’re going to go to prison? You can’t scare someone who has no hope.”

But people are scared-of becoming another Michael Brown, or Malik Jones-Fair says. While Esserman stressed violence between “young men of color”, she pointed to police shootings that have allegedly targeted racial minorities.

The data is considered inconclusive, but an August 14 USA Today article-published shortly after the Michael Brown shooting-reported FBI data indicating that incidents wherein which a black person was killed by a police officer occurred two times a week on average from 2005 to 2012.

“We don’t talk about that,” Fair says. “So the violence is not just going on in our community. It’s not the black on black crime that everyone wants to talk about. It’s also incidents like Ferguson, where a white officer thinks they have the right to just gun down an African American male in the street. “I have 7 sons. I have to worry-because that’s the target in America today: young black males. I have to worry more about my sons getting killed by a police officer than by someone else in the community.”

One of Fair’s sons is sitting at the back of the room, listening quietly. T.J. Tucker lives in Sherman Oaks, California-8.5 miles from Beverly Hills and far from the New Haven streets where he says he can remember at least five times in which a “cop has delivered a blow” to him.

So his own distrust of police sticks with him like the marijuana charge he got 13 years ago-the same one that an officer in Chicago used as justification for searching his car and belongings after pulling him over during a recent trip there.

“Every day I go out, I worry about being killed by a police officer,” T.J. tells Esserman. “There’s no other way to look at him when you’re constantly victimized. There are a lot of people I know who are still going through this.”

Two days ago, his sister, Holly, was one of them. She was running late for a 9 a.m. class at Gateway College when an officer stepped in front of her car as she was driving into the parking garage on Crown and Church Street. She threw up her hands in frustration, but did not say anything else.

Agitated, the officer exchanged words with her and tried to open the driver’s side door.

“Luckily, I always keep my doors locked,” Holly says. “If my door was locked, what would he have done? Pulled me out of my car?”

Esserman seemed alarmed by Holly’s allegations and offered to speak privately with both her and T.J. after the event, and he says he does not deny that there have been officers who have caused problems.

“Both truths exist,” he says. “There are people with a heavy hand that do wrong, and there are people with beautiful hands that do right.”

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