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Norwich police, community members work to ensure better relations with police

Norwich — In May and June, Robin Relliford-Vilchez and Richard Thompson IV met while standing with hundreds of others in the greater Norwich community at protests and rallies for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

As they looked around, they realized they wanted to do more than hold signs, shout messages and wave to passing vehicles outside City Hall, the police station or at the Chelsea Parade green. Others joined them as Saturday morning chats with police drew dozens of attendees.

“We didn’t want to see what happened anywhere else to be a reflection of where we live,” participant Augustus Wortham said. “We need better relations with our police and politicians.”

Norwich police officers, too, wanted to bridge the communication gap between themselves and the people they have pledged to protect, especially city youths and young adults.

Every Tuesday evening since June 30, about a dozen Norwich residents have been meeting quietly with police Officers Ryan O’Connell and Briana Ramirez — part of the Norwich community policing team — to forge lasting relationships between police and residents of all ages and races.

Global City Norwich liaison Suki Lagrito joined and secured meeting space at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays at the Norwich Community Development Corp.’s Foundry 66 shared workspace facility. Several participants are business entrepreneur members of Foundry 66.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom gave his column in the quarterly Norwich Public Utilities newsletter to the group to explain their effort.

“Looking back to three months ago,” Relliford-Vilchez, 47, wrote for the fall newsletter, “when Richard, myself and the community members were all strangers living within the 9-mile-square (a Norwich nickname), I have begun to realize the true meaning of ‘commUNITY.’ We cannot control events that take place halfway across the country in Minnesota or change the narrative that the media creates. What we can control here in Norwich is the positive impact we make on those we share our city with. The seeds of change have been planted, and the Rose City continues to bloom.”

Police officers got out of their cruisers and talked with youths at playgrounds and recently at a Norwich Free Academy football practice. O’Connell said police hear the most from kids age 9 and a little older.

“Teenagers ask some interesting questions,” O’Connell said. “Now, if they see me around town, they can say, ‘hey, Ryan, how’s it going?’”

The informal Tuesday group with no name sprang into action to respond to the youths’ concerns.

Youths complained that the Donald Alfiero Skateboard Park was deteriorating, with cracks in the concrete. The group recruited volunteers and a contractor to fix the cracks.

Greeneville children complained about offensive graffiti on the rear wall of their Central Avenue playground. The group asked the Greeneville Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee for help, and received donations of paint and supplies for volunteers to repaint the wall.

Last Sunday, off-duty police officers helped assemble picnic tables purchased through fundraisers for schools to provide outdoor space for classes, activities and mask breaks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kids asked for better lighting at city basketball courts. Officers and community members are asking the Recreation Department for assistance to make that happen.

“A lot of what Briana and I are doing is listening to the kids,” O’Connell said. “We fixed the skateboard park, painted the wall and we’re working on the basketball courts.”

O’Connell said the group won’t just focus on sports and recreation. Members want improved relations with the local arts community, music programs and will work with children and adults with mental illness or disabilities.

On Saturday morning, several off-duty officers joined volunteers from the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen in neighborhood cleanups on Penobscott and East Main streets and to clear debris at an abandoned homeless camp near Walmart after its former occupants found housing.

“People get intimidated with us just driving around in police cars,” Ramirez said. “We want to create a more honest depiction of police.”

In the wake of the protests and rallies, officers started holding monthly Saturday “chats” with residents. Sessions at Foundry 66 were crowded, as dozens of residents asked questions and raised concerns.

After some residents requested an outdoor, more spread-out venue for COVID-19 social distancing, the Community Chat with the NPD moved to Mohegan Park on Saturday.

After the morning neighborhood cleanups, several officers brought donated cases of soda and bags of snacks. Community group members bought food at local supermarkets and received donated food from local restaurants for a daylong picnic with games and informal chats near Spaulding Pond.

Community group member Wes Murphy set up his DJ equipment and played peppy music that enticed a few people to try some dance moves.

Ramirez, Sgt. Nicholas Rankin and other officers moved among small groups of attendees and struck up conversations. Chief Patrick Daley joined the event by early afternoon.

One couple walking the trail around Spaulding Pond made a detour to the picnic, chatting with Ramirez about downtown fireworks and loud parties.

Ramirez said she has worked four years on the midnight shift and a month ago switched to evenings on the five-member community policing team.

"We're trying to make contact, make sure things are going OK," Ramirez told the couple, who asked not to be identified.

Others said they just wanted to show their support for the police.

Longtime youth advocate Dennis Jenkins told officers he wants to talk with the police training officer to organize a forum where police can present different realistic scenarios and explain their split-second decision-making.

"We want to have more events," Ramirez said, "get the students out, teen nights."

Jeannie Amado brought her two grandchildren for a walk at Mohegan Park and stopped in. Within minutes, Kori Moody, 11, and Jaxson Sherman, 5, were digging into snacks and getting lunch. Minutes later, they engaged Ramirez in a few games of giant Jenga as others tossed cornhole bags.

Relliford-Vilchez, who works at Madonna Place in downtown as family resource center program manager and child care coordinator, said the picnic was fun and part of the bigger goal of getting beyond rallies and slogans.

“This is the kind of relationship we want to have with police,” Relliford-Vilchez said.

The Tuesday group does discuss weighty issues of police incidents elsewhere, including the recent videotaped confrontation between Hartford police and a Black woman on Blue Hills Avenue. The group talks about how to prevent both the confrontational incidents and the angry aftermaths.

“We talk about how things happen, get a clear understanding from the community perspective and from the officers’ perspective,” Relliford-Vilchez said.

Thompson said when the original participants first got together, he wanted to address the “growing disconnect” between police and the community, especially among people of color. Social media blasts about incidents all over the country made sorting out the truth even harder, he said.

“It was hard to tell fiction from truth,” Thompson said last Tuesday. “The only way to resolve that was to have everyone sit at the table and put all the pieces on the table and pick out the pieces of truth.”

He said Norwich is too small to allow “big events” elsewhere divide the city.

“My idea was to sit down and force a communication between police and the community,” Thompson said.

The Saturday chats, initially were called “coffee with a cop,” but organizers soon learned that was a national organization with structured policies. To keep it local and informal, it's now Community Chat with the NPD.

“We have an opportunity to change the perception of how men and women in uniform perceive people of color, not as a threat,” Thompson said. “And to have people in the community change the way they perceive men and women in uniform.”

Kendra Johnson, 26, also Black, said she wants to ensure that her age group is represented and also treated with equity. She looked up to and trusted veteran Norwich police Officer Greg McDonald, and she would like all officers to follow his example. O’Connell said he, too, admired McDonald and learned a lot from his elder colleague.

Cindy Beauregard, who is white and is the family resources coordinator at the John B. Stanton School in Norwich, said she attended one community chat session and “was blown away.” She wants police to get more involved in the community and is excited at the city police department’s plan to get back into schools in an educational rather than an authoritative role.

Relliford-Vilchez said she hopes the Norwich group’s efforts can spread as a model to other cities.

“I hope this bleeds throughout the nation,” she said. “I want people to ask: ‘Why is your relationship so good with the Norwich Police Department?’ You can stand up and say, ‘Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter,’ but who is going to stand up and make sure it sticks?”

c.bessette@theday.com

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