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Local police leaders say Minneapolis incident erodes trust of community; demonstrators 'stand witness'

Local police, disturbed by videos from Minneapolis, say George Floyd's death was tragic and avoidable.

Law enforcement leaders in southeastern Connecticut who spoke with The Day about the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis said the officers' behavior was unacceptable.

"We can't tolerate this type of behavior anywhere in the country," New London Police Chief Peter Reichard said during a phone interview Friday. "Not in New London, not on the other side of the state and not in Minneapolis."

Police chiefs in Groton, New London and Norwich spoke out about the Floyd incident and members of the community held a small Black Lives Matter public witness gathering Friday afternoon at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist church in New London. On Saturday, a virtual town hall discussion, organized by the New London branch of NAACP and New London police, will be held on what residents should expect when they interact with city police. A link to the 11:30 a.m. event will be posted on the NAACP's Facebook page, facebook.com/nlnaacp2010.

On Friday afternoon, following three nights of rioting in Minneapolis and cities around the country, Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who kneeled on Floyd's neck for up to nine minutes, was taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Bystander video showed Chauvin with a hand in one pocket and his knee on Floyd's neck as Floyd, unarmed and in handcuffs on the ground next to a police vehicle, moaned repeatedly that he couldn't breathe, and at one point called for his mother. Video from another angle showed two other officers holding Floyd to the ground. Floyd, unresponsive by the time he was taken from the scene, was pronounced dead at a local hospital. He had been detained by police after a store owner reported he bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.

"It's hard to watch," Norwich police Chief Patrick J. Daley said. "You're watching a man die. There's no training model that teaches someone to kneel on someone's neck. That's just beyond human compassion."

Daley said Floyd's death would have been easily preventable if the officer who was seen pacing around the scene had intervened.

"I don't see any reason to restrain somebody in that way for that long," said Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., a retired state trooper who was an instructor on use of force at the state police academy and currently serves on the state's racial profiling committee.

"I hate to judge other cops, but let's be clear," Fusaro said. "If there's bad apples in our ranks, which I think there are a minute amount in the United States, we need to root them out."

'Standing witness'

Dozens of vehicles passing by All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Jay Street honked their horns in support of the group, some passersby hung out their windows and sunroofs to respond to the scene.

Maria Bareiss of New London stood with tears streaming down her face as she held a sign toward the street. "Being here today is giving a voice to somebody whose voice was snuffed out unnecessarily," she said.

Bareiss, who is Mexican and Irish, said she has experienced acts of racism throughout her life, including on the streets New London. She came out to show solidarity and said she supports those looting and rioting in Minneapolis.

"Sometimes there is collateral damage, we see that in war and this is a war," she said. "And you know what the war is for? To get the eyes here, let people know what's going on."

"People of color have been dealing with this type of thing for so many years, it's just now with video cameras everywhere you go, security cameras, people with their mobile devices, people who are birding in Central Park, perhaps,” she said, “and these things are being recorded and there's actual evidence that 'we think we're being persecuted' — guess what? It's true."

New London Officer Anthony Nolan, who is African American and also serves as a state representative, visited the church and thanked every person who was standing witness and saying Floyd's name. He said it was the least he could do, "to let them know as a police officer that I am standing for the same thing that they're standing for."

"Time and time again people see law enforcement do things that they shouldn't do, and seeing this recent person killed by a police officer kind of lit a storm with a bunch of us in the community," he said.

Nolan said that as an officer, he felt pain, disgust and sorrow watching the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd. "Since so many things like that have happened, he had the audacity to do that in public, knowing he was videotaped, and even after people had told him that he was killing the person, and after the person begged to breathe, he still did not stop."

Rev. Carolyn Patierno said members of the church have been holding witness events for the Black Lives Matter movement for five years and were "out there to raise their voices in solidarity for those who are victims to systems of violence."

"We understand this to be a moment where we are compelled to speak up," she said.

A demonstration also was planned in New Haven, and the Connecticut Police Chief's Association issued a statement Friday saying, in part, that the images of Floyd's arrest are "beyond disturbing and cast a stain over the law enforcement profession and the dedicated men and women who strive to protect and serve their communities with honor."

'Strain on our community'

Daley said police around the country would be feeling the impact of the Minneapolis incident for years. "It takes you years to get good community relations and a high level of trust and legitimacy with your public, but you can lose it in a second," he said.

The local chiefs talked about ongoing efforts to earn and keep the trust of the community, including officer body cameras in Groton and Norwich, and soon, New London; ongoing training on implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention; and clear procedures for reviewing civilian complaints and disciplining officers who violate use of force policies. 

"As the chiefs of police, we are in the spotlight in a lot of the communities, and we need to let the communities know we are here to protect everybody," Reichard said.

The three chiefs, who are white, also spoke of continuing efforts to add diversity to their ranks.

New London police Capt. Brian Wright, the highest-ranking black officer in the history of the department, said by phone Thursday that it was his duty and obligation as a police officer and professional to speak about the criminal and egregious incident.

"The first thing that comes to mind is a quote by Dr. (Martin Luther) King Jr.: "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right." Police have to hold themselves to a higher standard, Wright said.

"We hurt ourselves and our communities by forgetting to have compassion in our hearts," he said. "We must do better and we have to do better. When things like this happen, it sets back everyone. Our job is to protect and serve, and if we don't hold officers accountable in order to protect communities, what are we?"

"Police officers, you have to do what's right. What happened in Minneapolis was terrible, I've never seen anything like it," retiring Mashantucket Pequot Tribal police Chief William Dittman said Friday of Chauvin using his knee on Floyd's neck. When Dittman was rising through the ranks and even training officers himself, he said the bottom line was that handcuffs were there to subdue a subject. "I have never in 44 years seen anything like that."

"It's just, it's unfathomable and I don't know what in God's name possessed the officer to do that — I just don't know," he added.

Wright is working with the NAACP on Saturday's virtual town hall event. Tamara Lanier, vice president of the New London NAACP, said she wants the discussion to include "the talk" that black parents have daily with their children about how to survive police encounters. Though her daughter is an adult who works as a probation officer, Lanier said she still gives her a checklist of things to do every time she goes out.

Nolan said he received about 100 phone calls from concerned citizens after the Minneapolis incident and that an angry, older white man went to his house Thursday morning to chide him for being "an antagonist" after seeing Nolan's Facebook posts strongly condemning the actions of those involved in Floyd's death.

"It's definitely put a strain on our community, even though we are not in the location where it happened," Nolan said. "It just brings the question up in regards to what's going on here and how are we prepared to handle this. How are we going to educate our kids in how they are to react when encountered by police?"

Nolan said he, too, has had requests to repeat a presentation he's done on what people should do when stopped by police. He said that a virtual presentation is being considered due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements.

"There's always time for a refresher, not only for the community but for police, as well, because sometimes we get lackadaisical," Nolan said. "It explains to people their rights. Some officers think it's bashing them, but it's not to bash officers. It's just to give people an understanding that an officer has to act this way, or is supposed to act this way, but as a community member you're supposed to act a certain way also."

Lonnie Braxton, a New London prosecutor and longtime activist in the African American community, said the Floyd incident doesn't just affect people of color.

"If the perception is constantly that the people who protect us can't be trusted, it's going to have a negative impact not only on the African American community, but all communities," Braxton said by phone. "One thing this (coronavirus) pandemic has shown us is that everyone can be impacted by something."

Lorenzo Boyd, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven, and director of the Center of Advanced Policing, said he isn't sure whether the Floyd incident, captured fully on video, is a turning point in the country.

"Unfortunately, American society is like a battleship, and turning a battleship takes forever," Boyd said. "We thought Rodney King was a line of demarcation when he was filmed (being beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991). But this goes back 400 years to slave patrol."

He said the black community is now saying to its white allies, "If you don't say something, you're complicit."

"This is a situation where people in black America are receiving vicarious trauma," Boyd said. "Every day we turn on the media and we're forced to see more black pain, and that starts to wear on people, and the vicarious trauma is becoming real. Then you get elected officials who are doing a lot of race baiting, and people are starting to feel what I think is racial battle fatigue."

k.florin@theday.com

t.hartz@theday.com

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