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National unrest sharpens CT’s focus on police-community trust

National unrest sharpens CT’s focus on police-community trust

CT Mirror, August 1, 2016

By: Kyle Constable

Long before most people had ever heard of Ferguson, Mo., Connecticut came dangerously close to a situation with Ferguson-like potential in 1999 when a Hartford police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in a dark parking lot on Enfield Street.

Emotions ran high in the days that followed, but there were no riots on the streets of Hartford. Instead, the community awaited the results of a state investigation taking an unorthodox approach – one officials hoped could earn the people’s trust.

Then-Gov. John G. Rowland decided within three days of the shooting to take the investigation from the state prosecutor in Hartford. He wanted to preempt any accusations of bias in favor of the city’s police department. The chief state’s attorney selected Kevin Kane, a state prosecutor from New London, to conduct the investigation.

After 10 months of scrutiny, Kane concluded in February 2000 that the officer’s actions were justified. A subsequent federal report released in 2001 concurred. While small protests sprang up, there was no unrest. Somehow, Kane had been able to navigate the tense situation and gain trust in the community.

In the years since, state lawmakers have enacted a number of reforms to address police conduct and the use of excessive force. One of the newest provisions – passed in 2015 – had its roots in the 1999 investigation. In situations where an officer is involved in a death, investigations now must be conducted by a state prosecutor whose jurisdiction does not include the officer’s police department.

CT faces same questions as other states back to top

But despite enacting some of the country’s most progressive police reforms, Connecticut still faces the same questions other states do about whether police are doing enough to enforce the law effectively without infringing on the civil rights of minorities, and if they are doing enough to build trust with their communities.

“There’s tension,” said Kane, who is now the chief state’s attorney. “It goes up and down. ... We’re at a very hard time now, a very sad time. It’s also a time of opportunity to really bring things together. The very communities and neighborhoods that are extremely upset or concerned also have a great need for effective law enforcement.”

Much as the unrest in Ferguson in 2014 prompted Connecticut lawmakers to enact reforms in the subsequent legislative session, many believe the recent deaths of unarmed black men in Baton Rouge, La., and St. Paul, Minn., as well as fatal police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, again have created a sense of urgency about tackling the problem. Some lawmakers are saying there is more work to be done when the legislature comes back into session in January.

But amid a divided nation’s competing chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” what those legislative solutions will look like remains to be seen. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, believes the next tragedy could happen in Connecticut just as easily as anywhere else. “Ferguson wasn’t a word that any of us were saying before we were saying it like we always knew it,” Winfield said. “We could be in Connecticut, saying, ‘Look at how great we’re doing,’ and then wake up tomorrow and say ‘Colchester’ the way we say Ferguson.” What has been accomplished?

The 1999 Hartford shooting unfolded in the city’s North End on April 13. A little after 2 a.m., Officer Robert C. Allan got word over the radio about an attempted armed mugging. He began searching the area for the suspects – four teenagers in a white Cadillac. Allan found them on Enfield Street. When they realized they were being followed, they veered off into a dark parking lot. All four suspects jumped out of the car and began to flee. Allan pulled out his pistol and ordered them to stop. Then Allan heard what sounded like a gunshot from behind him.

Shortly afterward, 14-year-old Aquan Salmon ran past him from behind and stopped just feet in front of him, facing away. Allan saw Salmon reaching down for an object at his waistline. As Salmon began to turn around to face him, Allan pulled the trigger and killed Salmon. While investigators found a gun-shaped cigarette lighter and a realistic toy gun on the scene, they determined that Salmon was unarmed when he was shot.

Shootings like this and many others in recent years have prompted lawmakers in states across the country to enact policing reforms dealing with the use of force.

CT excessive force act back to top

In Connecticut, the most recent policy overhaul – the so-called “excessive force law” passed in 2015 – requires state police to use body cameras, enacts the new jurisdiction policy in investigations of deaths, encourages police departments to recruit minorities and prevents departments from hiring former officers who were fired or disciplined for serious misconduct. The reforms received bipartisan support.

The legislature made body cameras the centerpiece of the excessive force law. The State Bond Commission approved $2 million in March to offset the cost of purchasing them for the state police. It also approved $13 million to help municipal police with the cost of adopting the technology. With the new financial incentive, the prospect of implementing the technology seemed realistic and straightforward. And though police officials had some reservations, they generally believed body cameras would have a positive effect.

Reform advocates agreed. “The reality is that we know from studies that have been done in places that have body cameras ... that cameras have a civilizing effect,” said David McGuire, president of the ACLU chapter in Connecticut. “Both the officer and the public tend to behave better when they know they’re on camera.” But even before body cameras seemed feasible, police conduct in Connecticut had been widely perceived as improving in the years after the 1999 shooting.

Police officials attribute much of this to better training. The excessive force law mandates deadly force training and advanced “bias-free” training, which is meant to teach officers how to have positive interactions with people of other races or ethnicities. It also teaches them de-escalation techniques for sensitive situations.

CT Police Chiefs Association and Training back to top

Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, who serves as president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said he believes Connecticut’s training is ahead of what many other states require. “Connecticut, I think, has always been at the forefront of police training,” Salvatore said. “We address diversity training. We address defusion and de-escalation strategies when we train. We understand the importance of crisis intervention, especially when we are dealing with people who are emotionally disturbed.”

One reason why many believe Connecticut’s police will continue to improve is the state’s decision to release data that could reveal racial biases in policing. Two major pieces of legislation – the traffic stop bill in 2012 and the taser bill in 2014 – require the state to disclose information about who is being pulled over for traffic violations and in what situations stun guns are being used.

McGuire said a recent push for transparency in police interactions is laying the groundwork for better accountability, and can shed light on what future reforms might be necessary. Since the 2012 traffic stop reporting law went into effect, the state has disclosed traffic stop data in each of the last two years.

The reports have consistently shown police officers are pulling over minorities at a disproportionate rate. In many cases, Salvatore said, this discrepancy can be accounted for by differences in an area’s demographics and traffic patterns. The reports’ authors have not concluded there is a significant bias in traffic stops statewide, though they did identify a number of departments where the data suggested further scrutiny was warranted.

In similar fashion, the first report released under the 2014 taser law showed that when stun guns, otherwise known as tasers, were unholstered, police were more likely to actually use them on minorities. But the report concluded similarly that a significant statewide pattern could not be drawn from the early data.

Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile said while researchers might not be drawing any broad conclusions, these reports show discrimination and “verify that it's happening.” Even as officials and activists dispute the broader conclusions, the data has led to some action.

Pulling over minority drivers back to top

In May, traffic stop researchers identified 25 officers across the state who were pulling over minority drivers at higher rates. Eight of those officers were from Hamden, a suburb of New Haven. Hamden had already had its wake-up call one year before when the first full traffic stop report came out. Hamden police officials decided then to address the problem, and have since reduced the number of minority individuals being pulled over for traffic stops by 25 percent.

McGuire said they adjusted “the way that they stop vehicles and the reason they stop vehicles” – focusing more on drivers who are speeding and running red lights rather than those with dimly lit license plates or tinted windows – and those adjustments, he said, have created a change in “the culture in the department as well as their stats.”

Hamden Police Chief Thomas Wydra told the Associated Press those eight officers singled out in the May report work in the southern part of the town – closer to New Haven – and were more likely to encounter a higher number of minority individuals in their traffic stops as a result.

The report identified five other local departments raising similar questions in their traffic stops: Bloomfield, New Milford, Norwalk, West Hartford and Wethersfield. State Police Troop H, responsible for the Hartford area, also was identified in the report.

Police officials argue that “bad apples” are responsible for much of the misconduct that takes place, and tend to skew the data. They say the reports can play a role in identifying those individuals. Advocates for reform say they are beginning to evaluate the data and look at patterns.

“The racial bias did not surprise us,” McGuire said. “But the long and short of it is, we are in a great place to move forward because we have this data to use, both to show that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and then for us to be able to gauge progress as we go forward with additional reforms.

Data without conclusions back to top

Kane said he has concerns about releasing the data publicly without concrete conclusions, worrying it could do more harm than good. He said each report needs better framing and context, because the media and the general public will draw their own conclusions where none can be drawn yet.

“I do have concerns about releasing data that has not been analyzed in a way that can lead to meaningful, or helpful, or accurate conclusions,” Kane said. “It really creates a divisiveness that naturally is a very emotional one and strongly felt one. I think it’s a divisiveness that actually hinders our ability to delve into these issues deeply so that we can try to solve problems that may well exist.”

Reports on the most recent traffic stop data by the Mirror's data website, TrendCT, can be found here, while a report on the taser usage data can be found here.

What problems remain? When Kane investigated the 1999 shooting, his primary focus was to determine whether the officer’s actions were justified. But even after he concluded his investigation, questions remained in the community about whether the trigger would have been pulled so quickly if Salmon had been white.

Many were upset when Kane disclosed his investigative team had no black members. He knew he had to ease the concerns of community members quickly.

“I didn’t know Hartford. I didn’t know the community in Hartford, and I didn’t know the community leaders in Hartford,” Kane said. “So, at the beginning, very soon after I was assigned to do it ... I went up there. I met with – in the basement of a church in the North End – and spent time with people in the community.”

Kane said this allowed him to get “a sense of the public” for his investigation. But when nearly nine months had passed without a conclusion, many in the community started to question whether answers would ever come. Kane, sensing the public’s concern, decided to hold a special meeting with community members one month before his findings were released. He met with them again just before releasing his report, giving them a special presentation of his findings and answering their questions. As a result, community leaders called for a reasoned response when the report came out. While a 14-year-old youth was dead and the officer who shot him cleared, at least the community had answers and somebody listening to their concerns.

Today, questions about the racial bias continue to present a challenge to officers looking to gain the trust of their communities. Reform advocates and activists say the existence of bias is not a question, and acknowledging its role in sensitive situations is the first step toward a solution.

“There is racial bias in the state of Connecticut,” McGuire said. “That’s really not a question anymore. We’ve seen that there are reasons for it, perhaps, but we know that that bias exists. And the ACLU is the first to say much of that bias is the unconscious type.”

Kane said he also believes unconscious bias exists. He said it stems from both the color of a person’s skin and the socio-economic disparity between Connecticut’s white and minority communities. But Winfield, a black man, said he believes in most cases the problem stems more from the color of a person’s skin rather than the socio-economic divide.

“Is there an economic component of it? Absolutely, because if you are somebody whose perception of your difference has to do with how you look, how you’re able to dress to some degree, you might be better able to escape a negative interaction,” Winfield said. “But if their perception of your difference rests solely in the fact that you wear the skin, or that you are something akin to what their perception of being negative is, then none of that matters. And by the way, I walk down the street some days with a suit on and some days with jeans on, and there are different treatments I sometimes get (from police officers) because of that.”

Addressing unconscious bias, McGuire said, is something the state is working to do. But even with advanced training, he said, there has been a breakdown in trust between the police and their local communities. While Salvatore agrees that might be true for some small segments of the population, he said he believes “a vast majority of people” support their police forces.

Demographic disparity between police and communities back to top

This dispute highlights the difference in perspectives held by officers and activists. From Esdaile’s point of view, police-community relations in Connecticut are “at an all-time low” and are not getting better.

Part of that breakdown in trust, regardless of how widespread it may be, may be coming from the demographic disparity between the police force and the communities they serve.

A recent analysis by Governing, a monthly publication covering policy and politics for state and local government leaders, found that, as a whole, Connecticut’s police forces have the nation’s second-highest percentage of minority underrepresentation, with a 36 percent gap on average between the percentage of minorities in a department’s jurisdiction and the percentage on the police force.

The police department in the state’s capital city shows the problem clearly. While Hartford’s population is almost 39 percent black, only about 12 percent of Hartford’s police officers were black in 2014.

Despite a provision in the new excessive force law calling on every police department to develop a minority recruitment strategy, there is no binding requirement to increase the percentage of minorities being hired. Efforts to recruit more minority officers have often been modestly successful at best and ineffective at worst.

Danbury is one of those cities seeing modest success.

Two years ago, the city began a major push to increase minority recruitment on the police force. The city has a growing Latino population – about a quarter of all residents – but for years Latino representation in the police department remained below 10 percent.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said the force, which has about 160 members, has added several more Latino officers in the past two years, bringing Latino representation closer to 15 percent. He expects that number to continue to climb.

He said recruiting minorities to local police departments can be difficult, because of background checks and polygraph tests. One “bad act” from many years earlier, Boughton said, could keep an otherwise good person off the force.

But not all departments have seen the same results as Danbury. The new police chief in Danbury, Patrick Ridenhour, spent five years as chief in Stratford before taking the new job in July. In Stratford, he said, recruitment of minorities to the force was “pretty static.”

Ridenhour, a black man with nearly three decades of police experience, said he would have liked to see more minority recruits make it onto the force, but outreach efforts were not enough to help most overcome the hurdles that exist in the system, from background checks to testing. Graduates of a Hartford Police Department Academy class in 2012. Hartford Police Department photo Graduates of a Hartford Police Department Academy class in 2012.

“I think that there should always be an ongoing effort to try to make sure your police department is reflective of the community it serves,” Ridenhour said. While minority recruitment has been slow, it does not solve the broader problem that Esdaile calls “the blue wall.” Police protect their own when they cross legal and ethical boundaries, Esdaile said.

“How many times have internal affairs across the state arrested one of their own for racial profiling or police brutality?” Esdaile asked. “Why aren’t these good officers arresting the bad officers? ‘There’s only a few bad ones.’ So if you know there’s a few bad ones, why aren't you arresting them?”

That makes minority recruitment, Esdaile said, seem like the “low-hanging fruit” instead of a long-term solution to the problem.

The use of body cameras was an obvious strategy for increasing accountability. Under the excessive force law, the state police were required to begin using them. Municipalities were given a choice.

When the costs of storing large amounts of video for a significant period of time became clear, however, many departments turned away from the idea. In January, the Berlin Police Department announced it would stop using its body cameras after the Police Officer Standards Training Council mandated that video be stored for 90 days. Many other departments have simply decided not to adopt the technology despite the funding available to purchase the cameras.

Kane said the state should have pilot-tested the program first. He said the vast amounts of data would be overwhelming for any local police department, and sorting through it every day could prove even more onerous. All of that work, he said, is being done for just one video angle. He compared body cameras to football replay. A video tells a story, Kane said, but every angle can tell a slightly different version of the same story.

Police officials say even that one perspective can be valuable. In situations where an officer’s actions were justified, Salvatore said, it typically vindicates them. But in instances where the officer has acted inappropriately, it can provide accountability.

But in certain situations the video is not enough to hold officers accountable, Esdaile said. Sometimes, as Kane suggested, videos leave room for individual interpretation. Esdaile said this keeps those affected from getting justice. What’s next? Part of what made the 1999 shooting controversial was the public perception of racism in Hartford’s police department at the time. The city’s police chief released a statement shortly after the shooting saying racism would not be tolerated in the department. But with a majority-white police force, easing the community’s concerns was difficult then. It remains difficult now. 

A number of state and police officials say officers have to work to rebuild trust with their communities by being visible to the people who live there. Kane said he would like to see police officers walking the streets more, making an effort to have positive interactions with people in communities rather than just intervening when there is potential criminal activity.

Residents and police officers need to be “re-educated,” Hartford Common Council President Thomas J. Clarke said, about the purpose of a police force: “to protect and serve.”

“I think (officers) need to be engaged with the community,” Clarke said. “The work starts at the home, have them engage (residents) at the home. Go to the churches, go to the community centers, hang on the block with people, so that they won’t be a fear mechanism.”

He said if police put forward the effort to build a relationship in their communities, residents need to have an “open mind” and “a willingness to want to work on the divide.” But, Salvatore points out, not all towns in Connecticut are suited to that sort of policing. Rural and suburban communities many times lack the centers of community activity and dense living areas that would give their officers the chance to interact with many members of the community.

Police officers in these rural and suburban towns, he said, make an effort to participate in local activities and be visible to the community during civic events. “We all recognize the importance of being connected, and not being the unknown face in a vehicle that just drives by, as opposed to getting out and interacting with people,” Salvatore said.

In order to increase the number of interactions, police departments will need to expand their numbers. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin says the city’s fiscal crisis is leaving his police department, like many others, understaffed. “In order for police officers to be out of their cars, and walking the beat, and shaking hands, and visiting schools, and being ‘Officer Friendly’ and all of those essential elements of community policing, we need to have enough officers so that they can not just be responding to calls, but doing that proactive outreach,” Bronin said.

Even if funding became available to hire more officers quickly, it would not solve the problem of finding new recruits from minority communities. Salvatore said each department has its own strategy for minority recruitment – a requirement under the excessive force law. But the law does not stipulate how much effort each department has to put into minority recruitment. Even if police departments are not increasing minority recruitment significantly, Salvatore said, they have to be ready for challenges presented in a diverse state. He said he prepares his officers in Monroe to handle anyone who could pass through the town, not just residents of the quiet suburb.

 “In a mobile society, you’re going to encounter people that are different than you,” Salvatore said. “We need to reflect that difference.” But walking the streets and increasing the number of officers can only go so far if the community does not believe accountability exists.

Trust can only exist, Esdaile said, when departments “lock up rogue police officers” who are racially profiling. Winfield agrees. “What I would like to see is both a national conversation and state-by-state conversation about that – about when police act outside of the bounds of what is right that there’s actually recourse for people, there’s actually punishment for bad behavior,” Winfield said. “Then we don’t have to have a conversation about all of black lives, because they all do matter.”

Police officials say they recognize the importance of these conversations, and are willing to have them. “These are difficult conversations for men and women in blue with the community, but they have to be had, don’t they?” Hartford Police Chief James C. Rovella asked. “And they have to be truthful, they have to be open, and there has to be change.” These conversations are beginning to take place in cities across the state, including in New Haven two weeks ago and Bristol last week. But many of the conversations that have already happened, Esdaile said, are not honest and do not include many of those who are most affected by racial profiling – young black men. Esdaile said he plans to organize a forum where the perspectives of those most affected can be heard. “I pray it gets better, but it’s not going to get better until we have open, honest dialogue, and justice is served,” Esdaile said.

From a policy standpoint, reform advocates and elected officials are already beginning to pitch ideas for state and federal changes. At the federal level, more funding for community-oriented policing services, known as the COPS program, would help cities across the country hire more community police officers and continue to provide adequate training, Bronin said. He is urging U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to push for additional federal funding. But McGuire believes any major federal spending initiatives will probably stall out. He said the focus needs to be on state-level reforms. In the short term, this means changes to the body camera program, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree needs tweaking. Finding a solution will probably be a legislative priority in the next session, according to Winfield and Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff consulting with a deputy GOP leader, Kevin Witkos. Sen. Kevin Witkos, right, talking with Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, left. “It would be unaffordable if you have a cop wearing these things eight hours a day,” Witkos said. “The amount of video on there that nobody would request to look at normally, how long do we have to store that stuff? We may have to tweak the legislation that way to make sure there’s a way to at least shorten the amount of time unless somebody files a request, an FOI request, to look at it.”

McGuire said one of the major legislative initiatives the ACLU plans to push for in the next session is a state-owned cloud storage server that state and municipal police departments could use to keep body camera videos.

Salvatore said he would welcome a change from the state on body cameras, whether it comes in the form of offsetting the cost to municipalities or reducing the amount of time they are required to keep video files. More broadly, the ACLU wants the state to create a new independent police accountability entity for investigations into “serious police misconduct.” This entity, McGuire said, would have subpoena power, and move swiftly to provide a report on whether an officer’s actions were justified.

“It takes an awfully long time for the investigations to be handled, and for the police and prosecutors to determine whether it was excessive use of force or justified use of force,” McGuire said. “Justice is at the very least slow and, in the eyes of many, nonexistent, because there’s almost never a finding that there’s an unjustified use of force.”

McGuire said he expects the ACLU’s proposed entity to cost about $300,000 annually. Given the state’s continuing budgetary struggles, it may be a tough sell, even at a low cost. Kane said the reason investigations take as long as they do is because they are thorough. He said investigators have to see through the initial emotional reaction to find the truth. During the 1999 shooting, the concept of body cameras seemed like a tool of the distant future. Whether it would have made a difference in the dark parking lot on Enfield Street would be pure speculation, but police officials maintain that body cameras vindicate officers’ stories far more often than they incriminate them. While Kane did not have any video to examine during his investigation, an audio recording of the police radio broadcast during the incident proved compelling. One source told the Hartford Courant that a person could “hear the fear in Allan’s voice” on the tape.

The 200-page report Kane compiled was exhaustive. With the help of then Public Safety Commissioner Henry Lee, he even prepared a computer-generated simulation to demonstrate the angle at which the bullet entered Salmon’s body. The investigation found the bullet entered through Salmon’s shoulder from a side angle, meaning Allan had waited until the last possible second to fire without putting himself in danger as Salmon turned to face him.

In an effort to expand on the spirit of the body camera program, the ACLU also plans to push for taser cameras. McGuire said these could add another layer of accountability for police in the field, which activists believe is necessary. Esdaile said tasers have been “tools of torture” instead of the “alternative to lethal force” promised by the state. Winfield said he plans to revisit some ideas floated for the excessive force bill that were not included in the legislation. He said the legislature has been consistent in passing new police reforms during his eight years in office, and he expects that will continue in the next session. But not everyone believes more legislation is the best course of action.

Witkos, a former police officer, said Connecticut is “way ahead of the game” on police reform. He said the excessive force bill established the changes necessary for the time being. Aside from the body camera video storage issue, he does not believe the existing law needs any modification or addition. Its benefits, he says, will be seen in coming years as it takes effect.

“Pretty soon, if we put too much stuff on the police, they’re not going to be able to do their jobs,” Witkos said. “The statistics are very reliable ... and make the case, if you will, that we don’t have the problem in Connecticut, so let’s not create something in the thought that there may be a problem.”