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Connecticut’s Black residents say they still feel underrepresented

Doreen Coleman, center, the mother of Randy Cox, stands next to civil rights attorney Ben Crump in front of New Haven City Hall on Sept. 15.
Jaden Edison
CT Mirror
Doreen Coleman, center, the mother of Randy Cox, stands next to civil rights attorney Ben Crump in front of New Haven City Hall on Sept. 15.

Connecticut passed a set of police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Black residents in the state say they still feel underrepresented at the state level — and police aren’t trying hard enough to understand their communities.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “Three years after police reform, CT’s Black residents still feel unheard,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello Jaden. Jaden, you talk about the police reforms that Connecticut had right after the George Floyd incident. What were those reforms? And how is it working out for Connecticut?

JE: Yeah. After the murder of George Floyd, we saw global protests and across state legislatures and across states in general, a lot of conversations around racial justice and how to perhaps correct the wrongs of history. And so I think Connecticut had its own reckoning in that way. And you saw the passage of the police accountability law, which was a very robust law, which we could probably talk for hours and hours about.

But I think some of the key points are mandating the use of body camera footage in all interactions with the public, limitations on when officers can use force, you have the implementation of the duty to intervene when an officer was involved in wrongdoing, for lack of a better term. And then perhaps the most controversial piece of it was limitations to qualified immunity. So basically replicating what was already in federal law and putting it in on the books in the state, which was something that obviously that is still getting a lot of backlash.

WSHU: That is still a contentious issue today.

JE: There's been a lot of pushback from people who are lobbying on behalf of the police. And the feeling is that this has reduced the ability of local police departments to be able to recruit new officers and that people have been deterred from the police by the police accountability law. And I know that I have done stories about this. And the evidence is not there.

WSHU: What is the main point that has been put out? That this has had a dampening effect on police recruitment?

JE: I mean, it's interesting, right? Because as we mentioned, this was something that was already established at the federal level. So basically, all you're saying is, we're going to codify this very same thing that already exists, and put it into the books at the state level. And so that's effectively what it did. To that point, I've covered this session since the onset, and you've seen the points that you mentioned, this whole notion of screening and lack of morale among our officers, like, we're having difficulty recruiting. Mind you, I would say, at the same time, right, the pandemic created a lot of disruption for nearly every state agency in Connecticut. So I think there are a number of agencies and departments outside of police, that have had issues with staffing, and they've had issues with recruitment, so on and so forth.

It's fascinating, because at the same time, as we're talking about morale that was kind of the story behind the story, right? For me when it came to this, among all this conversation that we're seeing on the House floor and in public hearings, is the absence of the very people who are affected by everything that's happened historically, but particularly, we're talking about all the conversation since 2020, these were the people who were most affected by the things that were happening.

WSHU: So you took a look at that. What did you find?

JE: Yeah, it's interesting, we went out to five Connecticut cities, the five most populous cities, where most Black residents live. We went to Hartford, Waterbury, Stanford, New Haven and Bridgeport to just talk to everyday people. The people who are not gonna go testify in public hearings, people who aren't necessarily as active politically, but very much have the viewpoint and the perspective to speak on these things knowledgeably. So that's exactly what we did.

Going out, we found that overwhelmingly, people that we talked to, talked about a need for more engagement at the state level, and at the level of law enforcement when it comes to going into those communities and actually learning about the needs of the people. They're learning about the interest of the people there. Because what has happened in the absence of that is this feeling of being unheard, this feeling of, we told y'all even before 2020, but let's use 2020 as a starting point, we all told you that these were the things that we felt needed to change. And three years later, we're still hearing the same talking points, albeit the law has passed. We're hearing the same talking points, you know, on the House floor that potentially undermine House and Senate floor and in the chamber and public hearings, so on and so forth.

And potentially, I mean, that effectively undermines what people feel and so that's personal. So you know what we heard on the floor, you know, in the communities, it's just again, just this feeling of we want to be seen as human too. This isn't a thing where everybody's just saying, 'Oh, we hate police officers.' This is a thing of, 'hey, we are coming to you with a very serious set of concerns. And these are the things that we want to change.' And it seems like this has become a battle of, it's about your morale, but we're telling you about our livelihood. And these are the things that we want to happen to things we want to see. And those things aren't happening, at least from their perspective.

WSHU: Well, Jaden, let's get a bit more specific. You have the example of London Jones. Tell us about Jones and what you heard from him.

JE: So London's interesting. We met him out on the north end of Hartford, we were just walking around. It was sometime in the winter. We've been working on this throughout the first half of the year. And he was an interesting guy, so we talked to him. He shared with us that he used to be a chef.

WSHU: He's about 50 years old now.

JE: Right. And so he was just telling us about how he was one time pulled over when driving. And he believed it was a mistake. They had handcuffed him. And they pointed guns at him. He's sitting there telling us a story, and he's like, why am I being viewed as a threat? Like, what's happening? Like, I literally work as a cook at a Jewish hospital, what's happening? And then, you know, come to find out the officers apparently had pinpointed the wrong person. But that's kind of his overall sentiment now is this whole notion of being guilty until proven innocent, right, versus it being the other way around for other communities.

WSHU: Has he seen any changes?

JE: Yeah, we didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of it. The one thing that he did talk about was just this whole notion of wanting to be listened to. Having officials come out to the community and actually listen to the concerns of people. But I think what made London's anecdote so powerful is that there's always strength in numbers in the reporting. What you find is that London Jones was on the north end of Harford, we went to the east end of Bridgeport, and we went to UConn Stanford, I mean, you go anywhere, and you're hearing a different story, but I'll be the same kind of content material in it.

So I think, overall, there was a sentiment that there needs to be more engaging because as it exists right now, people don't feel that the people who are tasked with representing them, and the people tasked with serving and protecting right, from the standpoint of law enforcement, they don't feel connected, they don't feel like those officials are connected to the things that they have going on.

WSHU: And you also talk to a mayoral candidate in New Haven who said that the perception is what we have to deal with for most people. The perception of policing is the reality for them. And how does that change?

JE: Yeah, that was interesting. Shafiq Abdussabur is a mayoral candidate in New Haven. He worked more than 20 years as a sergeant, I believe, in the New Haven Police Department. So I think it was very important to get his perspective on this. And that's exactly what he said. As an officer, from his standpoint, when you're dealing with the public, perception becomes reality. So if you have people who feel like they're not respected, or they feel like you aren't serving in their best interest, the question becomes on behalf of law enforcement, what can we do to change that? And that was his perspective. And so I think it just goes hand in hand with some of the points I've mentioned before is people don't feel listened to.

We heard from two gentlemen in Waterbury who talked about every time the police come into our community, it feels like they're trying to take somebody back downtown. And then you had a mother, who works in New Haven tell us about when she was raising her son years ago, there was this culture of when you had kids who got into mischief, the police officers would take the child back to the mom or the father and say, hey, here's your son, this is what happened. There wasn't perhaps what she feels, you know, this culture that we see today, where people legitimately feel like they're being targeted.

Overall, what we heard is that the change that is outside of campaigning ceases, and this is on the part of state officials and local officials. We want you present here. Come here and talk to us, get to know us. And you might find that some of the points that we're bringing up you might find valid and you might take it more seriously when you hear and you see that it's coming from an actual human. This is a thing where we have serious concerns, particularly when it comes to us, but also as we're raising our children. And these are things that we've seen nationally, right, historically. And these are things that people are saying here in Connecticut, despite what people may think about police violence or whatever may be less likely to happen here.

WSHU: You start the story by talking about New Haven making the largest settlement for police misconduct in New Haven, about a week ago. $45 million. That is something that taxpayers ultimately will have to pay.

JE: Insurance will pay, and the city’s rates will go up. But I mean, to your point, this is a completely notable thing, right? What happened to Randy Cox, who was very clearly neglected, and in particular, he was injured in police custody, but in the aftermath, what perhaps made it more alarming for many, many folks who watched the video was how he was treated after the fact. And I think even more notable, perhaps, has been the response at the state level, particularly when it comes to statewide elected officials. Because I think locally, you've seen a lot of attention. You've seen New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker. And you've seen Police Chief Karl Jacobson, who has been all out in front of this when it comes to press conferences and putting out statements and trying to keep the public informed on what's happening, you've seen that.

But what you haven't seen perhaps, and I think this has been acknowledged in my conversations with lawmakers, and advocates and people in general, this whole notion of you know, when tragedy and wrongdoing happens, perhaps thousands of miles away from here, we saw a bevy of public statements that came in the following day. The next morning, it was a Saturday, I remember statements from the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Governor Lamont to Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysieiwcz, and the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. And we’ve had lawmakers who have come out and spoken about Randy Cox. But it's been different, right? When you see the outpouring of support when it comes to things that happen away from here, there are people who legitimately feel like when things happen here, it's not given that same level of attention. And that was kind of the reason for opening up the story in that way we did.

You have this historic settlement, the biggest settlement for a police misconduct case in United States history. Before that, you had George Floyd, $27 million, which obviously, we know, what George Floyd meant for this country and all the things that happened in the aftermath. You have Breonna Taylor, whose family I think was awarded $12 million. Perhaps people feel like it just goes back to this example of, why is it that when things happen to us in this state, that it's not given the same level of attention and care. And so it's interesting, but I think it just goes hand in hand with this whole notion of folks feeling like they're not being heard, and that they're not prioritized, and that their feelings and their stories, and their experiences don't mean anything, especially when you go to the Legislature and the conversations are about the morale of police officers. And so that's just what people feel.

This is so interesting to me, as someone who's been here since September to see all this kind of unfold and learn about this. It has been a crash course for me, for sure. And I'm very interested to see, moving forward, if these conversations continue to happen. How do we change the culture around law enforcement, how do we make sure that people feel like we're here for them, that's something that is a big task, but it's something that I think a lot of people feel is needed.

WSHU: Having Black members of the Legislature helps in being able to push that angle because right now, the chair of the Judiciary Committee is Black. I think has made quite a bit of difference over the years just looking at what has happened.

JE: Yeah, absolutely. Senator Gary Winfield, he's actually someone we talked to for this story, he's not quoted, but I spoke with him to get the landscape. I wasn't here when the base of the story with Cox happened last year. So, I went back and they sent me some material and then also I went back and watched and read through the stories in the clips and things of that nature. But I think that's very much true that as you find that people like Senator Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven, and Robyn Porter, who also represents New Haven, those are typically the people you see kind of speak up know about these issues, or really, you know, push these issues.

These are the people who in some way, shape or form have also communicated with Randy Cox's family since the incident happened. Talking to Senator Winfield, I asked him, do you feel like this was treated differently than issues that have happened in other states? He did point out that it hasn't been the same, it hasn't been something that everybody was just head over heels, coming out to talk about and condemn what they saw on that video.

And so back to your point, it is interesting that the Black legislators are typically the people who champion a lot of these issues that we're talking about, are typically the people who are trying to represent, those same voices that we interviewed in the story during those debates. But as you can imagine, I'm sure it's maybe it's a tough task for those folks who know that the legislature isn't as diverse as the state. The legislators of color are typically the people who tend to bring up and champion these very same things we're talking about.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.