Criminal justice professionals to speak at black history event at Groton church

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Groton — Area law enforcement professionals will take part in a panel Saturday that looks back at the history of the criminal justice system from a black history perspective and highlights recent progress and work that remains to be done.

The New London chapter of the NAACP organized the black history month event, which will take place at 6 p.m. at St. Johns Christian Church, 346 Shennecossett Road.

Tamara K. Lanier, first vice president of the New London NAACP chapter and a retired probation officer, said she would begin the discussion by speaking briefly about the history, including the black codes and Jim Crow laws, which were enacted to restrict the freedom and rights of black Americans, as well as the civil rights movement and mass incarceration.  

"What's important, and the message I want to leave people with, is the evolution," Lanier said during a phone interview Monday. "I can't say we've made 100 percent progress, but I know officers within the police departments are working from the perspective of they want to help instead of doing harm."

Lanier wants the public to be aware of resources that are available to them before they get into the criminal justice system.

Guest speakers include representatives of the Groton City and New London police departments, with whom Lanier said the NAACP works closely, and who have made huge strides in community policing.

"We walk the walk at our place and we have a very diverse department," Groton City Police Chief Michael Spellman said. He said by phone Tuesday that he and one of the department's three African-American sergeants, Pete Miller, will be at the event. Spellman said Groton City police have a tremendous relationship with St. Johns Church, whose pastor, Rev. Joseph Coleman, is the department chaplain. They have worked together on food drives, coat drives and toy drives.

Capt. Brian Wright of the New London Police Department, also scheduled to speak, said his department is fortunate to have people of color and women among its ranks but is always looking to do more to reflect, or be similar to, the city it serves. Wright, the highest ranking African-American in the department history, was the second African-American to attain the rank of sergeant and was the department's first black lieutenant and captain. He said seven out the 68 sworn officers are black.

"While it's special, it does strike me, given the 150-year history of the department, that it's not that spectacular," he said by phone Tuesday. "But hopefully it's a bright beginning."

Wright said the New London Police Department has strong partnerships in the community to aid in recruitment and is working on an initiative — the details of which he said will be disclosed in the near future — that will be personalized to the City of New London.

Also speaking at Saturday's event are retired Superior Court Judge John J. Nazzaro, who was the second Asian-American to become a judge in Connecticut; Senior Assistant State's Attorneys Lonnie Braxton, who was raised in the segregated South and is a lifelong scholar of black history, and Paul J. Narducci; Probation Officers Reginald Stanford and Shonrael Lanier; Parole Officer Malik Champlain, Juvenile Probation Officer William Barry Carlos and Re-entry Specialist Daryl McGraw.

Lanier, who also is involved in efforts to recruit more minority teachers and eliminate workplace disparities for minorities and women, said that presenting the issues to the public is part of the solution. She cited the law that required police to make data on race and traffic stops public, saying the feedback that they have to do better has worked.

"So many people have complained to the NAACP, and many have given up that there will be no change," she said. "But we're encouraged because we think now there is a climate that speaks to disparities, not only with minorities, but with women, too. We see that policies are changing, and that looks great, but we also want to see practices changing."

k.florin@theday.com

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