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In wake of Black Lives Matter protests, some activists sit down with police

Police departments have long held "coffee with a cop" events and community conversations, but in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and ongoing protests, some in recent weeks have specifically been sitting down with Black Lives Matter activists to talk about racial issues.

Hartford police posted a picture on Facebook two weeks ago of eight people from Black Lives Matter 860 meeting with Chief Jason Thody "to discuss use of force policies and how to continue/expand police community relations," while Ledyard Police posted the week before about meeting with two women who spoke at a Black Lives Matter protest in town.

But activists are split on this front, with others specifically not wanting to talk to police.

Lauren Hipplewitz and Moriya Phillips, both Black women who are 2017 graduates of Ledyard High School, wanted to meet with Ledyard police to "debrief" the protest on June 13 and clear up some miscommunication.

"It wasn't a great place to facilitate a productive or meaningful conversation," Hipplewitz told The Day last week, so she and Phillips went to the Ledyard Police Department on June 18, where they sat down for more than four hours with Chief John Rich and Lt. Ken Creutz.

Phillips said at the protest, it took about 45 minutes to convince police to kneel with protesters, and that the chief was the first to do so, but it seemed like police were "caught off-guard" by the request.

Hipplewitz said protesters felt kneeling meant pledging that nothing like what happened in Minneapolis was going to happen in Ledyard. But Phillips said officers didn't know that, and thought kneeling meant you're against police. Hipplewitz felt Rich handled the emotion of the crowd well but other officers didn't.

Rich wrote in the Facebook post that in the subsequent meeting, they discussed training, bias, trauma, trust, communication, incidents of mistreatment of people of color, use of force, past incidents in Ledyard, selection of police candidates, and more.

He told The Day on Thursday about people coming to him for conversations about race, "It's not the first time, but it's not common, and I think the conversation is very important. And the conversation is now coming more to the forefront, where I think — I hope, at least — that people of color feel like they will be heard when they contact our police department."

Rich said he was struck by the courage of Hipplewitz and Phillips "to engage me in a situation where it's a difficult conversation for everyone." He said he also had a meeting Thursday with a group that has been recently demonstrating in Ledyard Center.

Going forward, Phillips said she would like to see longer bias training for police, more conversations between police and people of color, and more transparency from police about issues in town, "especially if there's racial tensions."

But one effort at transparency backfired. On Tuesday, the department posted on Facebook asking if people knew various pieces of information about the police investigation into the report of a noose hanging in Highland Lake Park last June, but many found it condescending.

Rich deleted the post and wrote an apology the next day, saying the "reaction to the tone of the post was overwhelmingly negative."

Getting out of the police car

In the New London Police Department, Capt. Brian Wright said police have had contact with protesters from one of the rallies, and police initiated a Zoom town hall held recently with the New London NAACP.

The "consensus was obviously there has to be a commitment to open-book policies and procedures," Wright said. He added that police have been public regarding the complaint process but could do more to make information available without being asked.

Jean Jordan, president of the New London NAACP, said the branch is "always talking with the police department," not just when there's a problem. She pointed to discussions over the years on body cameras and meetings about complaints.

"They expect us to be critical of them, and we are critical of them, and they do listen," Jordan said, noting that New London police have historically been responsive to the NAACP.

Wright, who said he sees these issues from both sides as a person of color, said he is always challenging officers, "When's the last time you just had a conversation, went up and introduced yourself?"

Similarly, City of Groton Police Chief Michael Spellman commented, "You get out of the car and talk with people, and you talk with them on times when it's not a traditional law enforcement contact." He said he wants to be the local police chief, not a photo on the wall of "that guy."

Addressing a crowd at the Black Lives Matter march on June 7, some of whom didn't want to hear from him, Spellman said he would have coffee with anybody.

Spellman told The Day that in recent weeks, he's had about five meetings with people who have reached out.

"We gotta maintain our accessibility to the public we serve," he said. "Even with all the anger out there, you gotta do it."

Other activists don't want to meet with police

Cornell Lewis, a longtime Black Lives Matter activist who lives in Bloomfield, said he was asked to meet police but declined.

Lewis explained that he thought any attempt by police and politicians at this point to talk would be "disingenuous." He feels that talking with police takes the pressure off them, giving an opening for them to not have to do anything other give a promise or platitudes.

"I think a lot of Black activists think, erroneously, that you can negotiate with a damn vampire until it don't bite you in the neck," Lewis, 70, said this past week. "I mean, in the old vampire movies, you had to invite the vampire into the house ... Once you did that, why should you be surprised that the vampire bit you?"

Asked about this mindset, Hipplewitz said she understands where Lewis is coming from and wouldn't want police to use meetings as propaganda, but said police need to hear their stories.

"Our biggest takeaway is that these conversations can't stop," Phillips said. She added, "It's not kumbaya from now on, because you had a conversation with us. That's not how it's going to work," saying the meeting was a baby step but "there's a whole staircase we gotta get through."

e.moser@theday.com

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