By January, a Mayor Toni Harp-appointed task force composed of New Haven Police Department officers, members of the clergy, community activists, and city residents will submit recommendations regarding how to improve community policing and law enforcement/civilian relations as a whole, but right now they’re asking people to weigh-in.
That was the purpose of the public hearing-the first of four that will take place within the next few months-that was held in the Wexler Grant School auditorium on Wednesday evening.
“The police need the community, and the community needs the police,” said New Haven Officer Shafiq Abdussabur. “So we have to see how we can work together and get on the same page.”
The objectives include the evaluation of current community policing practices, as well as New Haven Police Department procedures and protocols, particularly when it comes to the use of force-an issue that emerged in protests that followed a controversial St. Patrick’s Day arrest video, in which a 15-year old girl was brought to the ground through the use of a leg sweep.
The officer was exonerated through an Internal Affairs process, but not before Mayor Harp had him moved to desk duty-a measure that sparked an outcry from members of the Department.
The Committee’s task is just getting started, and members want to know what the greatest concerns are for residents.
“We’re excited about the process,” said Committee Co-Chair Leroy Williams. “We’re not really here to debate-we’re here to listen. We want to see what your concerns are as it relates to policing.”
While concerns regarding racial profiling, use of force, and youth engagement were voiced, a few residents wanted to address the process itself, and ensure that it goes beyond just a discussion.
“I don’t want to see something where we talk, and talk, and talk and present this nice document to the mayor, and it stops there,” said New Haven resident Latrice Hampton. “All too often, it stops there.”
Committee Co-Chair Eli Greer agreed, and promised the work of this task force would not reflect that history.
“This is not just another meeting-another get-together where we all feel good and pack up our bags and move on,” Greer said. “The Committee’s in it for the long haul, but we do need to here from the public and that process will take several months.”
And that, they did. New Haven resident Chris Garaffa urged the city to follow through with the establishment of an all-civilian review board in the likeness of resident and activist Emma Jones’ vision. Jones-with the help of Task Force Member Anthony Dawson-began pushing for a New Haven review board in 1997, after her son, Malik, was gunned down by an East Haven officer who chased him into Fair Haven.
Former Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. instituted a review board by executive order in 2001, but it lacked independent investigative and subpoena powers-major components of the Jones/Dawson blueprint. A 2013 Charter referendum has brought the structure of the body back to the drawing board, and the Board of Alders is currently in the process of remolding it, with the first public hearing held several months ago.
“It’s been entirely too long that we’ve been fighting for this,” Garaffa said. “It’s in the Charter, and it needs to have full powers.”
When it comes to community policing, Chief Dean Esserman-who was unable to attend the hearing-has said during past public meetings that new officers walk the same beat in a given neighborhood in order to familiarize themselves with certain areas and connect with residents on a more personal level.
Alder Delphine Clyburn suggested taking that further by having new officers meet with neighborhood management teams when they are first hired in the interest of enhancing communication.
Latesha Smith-a city resident-urged the Police Department and public officials to organize events aimed at bringing the youth and other residents to the table in an informal setting-such as a cookout or community basketball event. Smith, who describers herself as a millennial, says that many of her peers would benefit from that.
“I feel like my generation is overlooked,” she said. “They get out of school and are jobless.”
Since part of the task force’s charge will be evaluating Police Department policies and procedures, the public should be able to see what-specifically-Committee members are looking at, said Jane Mills, a city resident.
Williams said that it is still early, and that that information will be forthcoming.