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VIDEO: Continuing conversation on race focuses on policing in the U.S. and New London

National and local stakeholders convened Wednesday night for a discussion on race and policing in New London and beyond.

The virtual event, part of the Conversation on Race series hosted by The Day and Connecticut College, featured national experts on police accountability and members of New London’s Public Safety Policy Review Committee. It was moderated by Izaskun Larrañeta, The Day’s managing editor.

The special committee is chaired by John McKnight, the dean of institutional equity and inclusion at Conn College, and its members are appointed by Mayor Michael Passero. It was established late last summer amid national calls for police accountability and is recommending the city take steps to prevent police misconduct, improve recruitment to diversify the ranks of city police, enhance training, strengthen community relations and increase the role of human services to better address the root causes of some misconduct and conflict. The committee discussed these recommendations Wednesday night.

Debo Adegbile, a civil rights attorney and Conn College alumnus, and Ronald Davis, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under the Obama administration, opened the proceedings with remarks. The two had worked together with the U.S. Mayors Conference to produce an extensive report on police reform and racial justice.

They spoke at length about how to facilitate conversations between the community and police, what defunding the police means and could look like, and the disparate response of police at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot compared to the response to nationwide protests against racism and police brutality during the summer.

“In order to do police work, in order to solve crimes, we need the participation of the community,” Adegbile said. “One of the ways we can move forward is to have a greater dialogue.”

“Defund the police” became a controversial slogan this summer, and Adegbile said the phrase has taken on a lot of meanings. Some on the political left equate it to eventually abolishing the police, while those more to the center argued it means a less-radical reallocation of funding from police to other social services.

“The law enforcement footprint is too large and it’s taking finite resources that could go to the best responses to public safety,” Davis said. “Reallocate resources to support that. For those that say you should just arbitrarily cut it, there’s a cautionary tale to do that because you still want services to work.”

Davis said police throughout the country have been put in positions where they’re asked to be both police officer and social worker. He said there is an over-reliance on police to solve social problems.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years we have deconstructed the social services capacities in our communities,” Davis said. “We’re not trained to do that. We’re not social workers and you should not turn us into them. It criminalizes activities that shouldn’t be criminalized. Homelessness is not a crime. Addiction is not a crime. Mental illness is not a crime. We need to get out of that business and only be there for public safety.”

Davis said the response to anti-racism protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and Minneapolis in recent years looks “starkly different than the response or lack of response we saw at the U.S. Capitol.” He said the events of Jan. 6 illustrated that there are two Americas, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system: one Black and one white.

Adegbile said that those who normally display “concern when law enforcement is attacked, killed or injured in the line of duty ... didn’t have a lot to say” about officers who were “essentially executed by the mob.” Both said that it’s important police departments refrain from subscribing or supporting ideologies. Davis noted that there is a problem, according to the FBI, with white supremacists infiltrating the country’s law enforcement and military.

A panel discussion followed Adegbile's and Davis’s remarks. Panelists included Efraín Dominguez, president of the New London City Council; Tamara Lanier, vice president of New London NAACP; McKnight of Conn College; Jeanne Milstein, director of New London Human Services; Maya Sheppard, organizing director of Hearing Youth Voices, and Capt. Brian Wright of the New London Police Department.

They addressed a wide range of issues, foremost the special committee findings. The committee has suggested the formation of a civilian police review board and a charter change to add a police commission. The report states that “it would take great political will” to establish such a commission. Lanier said the city charter is going to be the first challenge.

“Through our discussions, it was revealed that the charter has certain restrictions, one being that the decision-making we wanted to extend to a police commission are at this point at the sole discretion of the mayor. In order to give that commission the authority that it needs, it would require a revision,” Lanier said, noting that there may be opposition from officers, “who I assume would not like having that kind of oversight ... the accountability piece is new, and it’s going to take an adjustment.”

The civilian police review board could be established by the City Council and could, depending on the model used, investigate allegations of police misconduct or take over the review of investigations from the existing Police Community Relations Committee. The review board, in contrast to the limited powers of the Police Community Relations Committee, could have subpoena powers to compel witnesses and provide for presentation of evidence, along with the ability to review police department policies.

“I think because of the atmosphere we’re living in right now, something has to be done to show that we’re moving forward,” Dominguez said. “We have had so much support in our city, starting from the young people. I believe this generation has so much insight, they have the passion, and I think they have the ability to open the eyes of many of us. The council that we have is very unique. We have the ability to make this possible.”

New London Police Union President Todd Lynch has complained about the lack of police officer inclusion on the 12-person committee and pushed back against the committee's conclusions that the union's own webpage, with its occasional attacks on critics of the department and police, is an obstacle to good community relations.

McKnight answered a question related to this topic about social media use by the police union and individual officers.

“I was really disgusted what I learned was happening on the police union website,” McKnight said. “I think public servants should be held to a different and higher standard when it comes to how to interact with the community you’re supposed to protect and serve. I think it’s unacceptable.”

McKnight said that as a Black man who has had “intense encounters” with police in the past, “To imagine my photo on the page of a police officer union, I would see that as threatening, hostile and intimidating, and I think that’s completely uncalled for.”

The special committee also recommended building a police force that represents the community it serves. Wright was asked what kind of recruitment efforts the department is engaged in. He admitted that it could be doing a better job on this front but said the latest recruitment effort was held in New London to make it closer to home for residents. He mentioned a possible mentoring program, as well.

“I think it’s important that we’re also looking at a mentoring program where, prior to the process (of becoming a police officer) there is interaction between officers and community members,” Wright said.

In order to recruit more people of color and ultimately have a police department comprising members who look like the community they serve, Wright said the department could go out and interact with people at schools, churches and community agencies.

The topic of defunding the police came up again, as the committee’s report suggests that the mayor and City Council make every effort to redirect funding from the police to schools and social services.

Millstein highlighted a shocking statistic: “40% of all police calls are regarding mental health in New London. The mental health condition is a disease. It is not a moral failing. It is not a character flaw. It is a disease like asthma or diabetes. We’ve got to deal with that stigma right away.”

She said she hopes to expand a mobile outreach program that provides emergency support to people in the city.

“We have implemented a program with recovery navigators — people with lived experience who work with individuals who have opioid use disorder,” she said. “The most important part of this initiative is that there is a caring, consistent relationship that is developed. It is a harm-reduction model. Today a person in crisis might need help getting food, or navigating the health care system.”

There is much to be done, according to Sheppard. She said the relationship between the New London community and its police department is nonexistent because of past examples of racial profiling, brutality and death in interactions with city police.

“Young people especially, that is what we know, that is the relationship that’s been founded,” Sheppard said.

How is it possible to mend — or rather, create — a relationship?

“I think it’s, listen,” Sheppard said, adding, “Acknowledging the harm that’s been done. To continue to deny or to ignore will only breed more mistrust.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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