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Navigating two worlds: Black police officers discuss wearing a badge

There have been protests across the country over racial injustice and police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired debate about the culture and role of policing in society. Amid this backdrop, The Day spoke with three Black current or former law enforcement officers about whether a tension exists between their race and profession.

Retired state police Lt. Col. Steven Fields, Groton City police Officer Bobby Harris and New London police Capt. Brian Wright shared their views on the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, their own experiences in policing and thoughts on whether things need to change in policing.

New London Capt. Brian Wright

When his son first started driving, Wright, 51, attached the registration and proof of insurance to the inside of the car’s windshield. The reason would be obvious to many Black families in America. It was aimed at keeping his son safe in the event he was pulled over by a police officer. There would be no reason for his son to reach over into the glove compartment.

It’s also part of a ritual known simply as “the talk,” in which Black children are warned to tread lightly during an encounter with police.

“It’s not something new or strange to a lot of households of people of color,” Wright said. “I knew early on there were certain ways to conduct yourself. I wouldn’t want something to happen to my children or anyone else’s children.”

Wright, in his 26 years as a police officer in New London, has experienced the tensions that can exist between police and the Black and brown communities. Being a Black officer in a time when the country is crying for racial justice and condemning the culture of policing gives him a unique perspective.

“Black and Latino officers experience both what it feels like to be targeted because of the color of their skin and the color of their uniform,” Wright said. “We get it from all sides. It’s been a constant and now elevated during the times we’re in now.”

“There’s always been that conflict going back and forth — the conflict with the uniform and what that represents,” Wright said.

Wright grew up in Bridgeport and took the test to be a police officer on a wager from a friend who was a state trooper. He joined the force in New London in 1994. He remains an optimist.

“I believed then and I believe now I can help and be part of the positive and bring about change,” Wright said.

There are instances where an officer gets to the scene and the caller asks for a Black officer. Wright said he understands that. He’s also seen the other side. He recalls one call when he showed up at a woman’s home with another Black officer in response to a 911 call. The woman, who was white, would not open the door or speak to them until a white officer arrived at the scene.

“People consciously or unconsciously have biases. The first thing is to acknowledge and admit that,” Wright said.

He shrugged off questions about whether he had been targeted by members of the Black community because of his choice of profession and said police must rise above name calling and remain focused on serving the community.

“It’s a matter of perspective. If you have seen or witnessed something, that’s your reality. That’s the divide,” Wright said. “We have to work harder to get past that. You have to remember that behind that uniform is another human being, someone’s mother, father, child .... If we all operate under that fact, we’d all be in a much better place.”

As for the killing of Floyd, Wright said “it was sickening,” an upsetting reminder that the mistreatment of people of color “was never hypothetical. It’s just now being brought to the forefront."

Floyd, arrested and handcuffed on May 25 for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill, was killed by white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes when he could be heard saying, "I can't breathe." Three other officers stood by while he struggled for life.

“As an officer and as a human being, I think the behavior of these officers was abusive, excessive and on every level wrong," he said. "We forget to be human. We have to do better. We must do better."

Wright said he thinks there needs to be more dialogue, more diversity in policing, especially leadership positions.

“The profession is dominated by white males,” Wright said.

In the absence of Black leadership, Wright said there are leaders such as New London Chief Peter Reichard who do a good job pulling in perspective from others to help inform them on decision making. The department recently decided not to pursue charges in the case of spray-painting of a Christopher Columbus statue, a police cruiser and police substation. The City Council recently voted to remove the statue.

The city has hired an outside attorney to investigate claims by Sgt. Cornelius “Neil” Rodgers, who is African American, that he has been the target of discrimination and unfair treatment because of his race. Rodgers was suspended earlier this year for striking a handcuffed prisoner.

Groton City police Officer Bobby Harris

When nationwide protests demanding racial justice and police accountability arrived in his community, Groton City police Officer Bobby Harris, 56, was on the front line of the protest and knew many of the youths protesting.

Many said “Officer Harris, how are you doing?” or asked to take a photo with him. Harris said that reflects the work he put in to get to know and embrace the community.

Harris, an African American police officer, said his advice for all officers, regardless of where they come from or which community they are policing, is to really get to know the community.

“Once you get out and get to know a community, then you realize that family — who may not look like you — are just like your family,” he said. “Everybody wants their kids to be better educated and get good jobs and be safe, just like my family.”

At a time of national tension between police and communities of color, Harris is standing with a foot in both worlds. He said he doesn’t feel he needs to “pick a side” and is trying to serve as a bridge between the police world and communities of color. As an African American, he understands the issues the communities face, while, as a police officer, he also knows he is doing his job to the best of his ability and respects people’s rights.

Harris understood the community outrage after the video of police killing Floyd, because he said he felt it, too. He cringed while watching the video and said he couldn’t have stood by and just watched what happened if he was on the scene. He said the men and women he works with felt the same.

Prior to becoming an officer, Harris would go to predominantly African American and Hispanic barber shops and hear complaints about a lack of police officers of color. When he asked them if they are applying for the jobs, most people said: “Well, no because they wouldn’t hire us.”

He asked: “How do they know if they’re not applying?” As the debates went on, he decided to see for himself if that was true and applied to become a police officer.

He initially had some hesitations, because he knew becoming a police officer is a different lifestyle and he could no longer go to the grocery store or out in the community unrecognized, especially since there are relatively few African Americans in law enforcement in the area.

After a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, Harris joined the City of Groton Police Department in 2008. He has served as a police officer for 12 years, including serving four years as a youth officer and becoming the only officer certified in Connecticut with the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition.

In 2011, he was one of the three plaintiffs in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city and the former police chief. Harris and two other Black officers had alleged that they were working in a climate of discrimination and that "African American officers are held to more exacting standards than Caucasian officers," according to The Day's archives.

"I just think that all of us should be treated equally," Harris said.

As a result of the lawsuit, Harris said the face of the department changed and today he considers the department to be one of the more diverse in the area.

He said it's important that police departments actively recruit minorities. He also sees directing educational resources to less fortunate areas as a key component to bring change in society.

Harris said he has zero regrets about his career choice and he feels, as an officer of color, he is changing hearts and minds. Harris, who lost his wife to cancer and a son to heroin addiction, also brings his personal experience to his job.

Harris said he thinks about his son every day and did everything he could to try to save him, but he got caught up in addiction.

Harris said while people may think police officers don't have their own ups and downs, his experience makes him a better police officer because he understands the community and the community understands what he went through:

"I really understand people and their everyday struggles," he said.

"I tell people all the time, 'Hey, I know what you're going through, maybe not personally because I've never been addicted to drugs, but my child just passed away and as a parent it was devastating,'" he said. "It makes me understand those people who are going through the struggle and the families."

He said parents whose children are addicted to drugs call him a lot for advice.

Harris, who is passionate about helping all children succeed, recently spoke with young African Americans who are interested in becoming a police officer.

“When I have these conversations, they say, ‘Well, can we really make a change?” he said. “I say, ‘Yes, you can.’ This is the one profession that you can really go out there and really make a difference.”

Retired state police Lt. Col. Steven Fields

Fields, 59, spent nearly 30 years in law enforcement, starting as a trooper with the Connecticut State Police and rising through the ranks to lieutenant colonel, overseeing day-to-day field operations of units throughout the state. He is now the city of New London’s chief administrative officer.

Fields, after viewing the video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd in Minneapolis, said he had the same reaction as most of society, “sick to their stomach, discouraged, frustrated, angry…”

“We’re now all asking the question why and how do we stop this?” Fields said. “It just can’t be allowed.”

Fields said he understands the calls for change, knows that racism exists within the police ranks but said he had his own experiences that were overwhelmingly positive. Fields grew up in Jewett City, where he recalls being the only Black family within miles. His late father, Thurston Fields, was chief of the Jewett City Police Department.

“I never looked down on police officers. My hero was a cop. He was an even-keeled human being. He was a role model, what I saw police officers to be,” he said. “A lot of the troopers and cops friends, I saw the profession through that lens. They were the good guys and I wanted to be a part of that.”

He said he was proud of his 30 years in policing “and never stood for anyone abusing anyone, it didn’t matter their race, color or creed.” While he has worked with a few poor cops, "knuckleheads" as he calls them, he said the vast majority were in the profession to help.

“I think what we’re confronting now is a failure in certain communities where police don’t communicate,” Field said.

He said he’s also watched, with the help of better technology and the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, an alarming rise in use of force by police that in his view is hard to justify.

“Police are not readily admitting some of these deaths as being absolutely wrong,” he said.

Deadly force, he said, is to be used when an officer’s life or someone is under threat of serious physical harm or death. He said advances in technology have brought to light a lot of police interactions and “the public is being educated.”

“Once you see someone choked to death or shot with their hands up, you have to say to yourself, ‘Wow, that makes no sense whatsoever. Was deadly force really needed?'” he said.

Fields said he's heard the calls for retraining of police but argues that might not be enough because “you can’t retrain someone’s heart.” Fields said that while there appears to be cultural problems in some departments, he thinks its unfortunate and unfair that “society is quick to indict an entire occupation.”

As for the calls for defunding police — described as the reallocation of police funding — Fields said what warrants discussion is who should be responding to calls for service.

“We rely on police too much to be experts on everything,” Fields said.

He said a dialogue is worth having about how police can partner with other agencies to bring in specialists such as psychologists, counselors and others better equipped to deal with the variety of the many emergency calls that are not necessarily criminal.

Police, he said, will always be needed since the main goal is providing for the public safety and quality of life for the communities they serve.

“People feel it’s time for a change. Let’s sit down and see what that looks like. What are your expectations? What do you want when you dial 911? What’s the most helpful thing for us to be able to send you?”

“Even with everything that’s going on right now, I don’t think there’s a nobler profession than a police officer,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

k.drelich@theday.com

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