Two recent police shootings in Connecticut have brought issue of tensions between police and the public -- particularly communities of color -- front and center. Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live team hosted a community conversation in Hartford recently, aimed at airing some of those issues.
Community members and panelists gathered at the Arroyo Recreational Center in Pope Park to find ways to mend relationships and build trust between the police and the community.
The conversation ranged widely, but it was prompted by shootings in Wethersfield and in New Haven in recent weeks. Anthony Jose "Chulo" Vega Cruz received fatal injuries in the April 20 incident in Wetherfield, which followed a traffic stop. Just a few days before, Stephanie Washington was injured in New Haven, after officers from Hamden and Yale fired into a car she was in along with the driver, Paul Witherspoon.
"When you talk about change you can't just talk about one side, you have to talk about both sides," said Greg Brown, a childhood friend of Vega Cruz. "There's a lot of issue we have in the community, but there's a lot of issues we have in law enforcement. Just because you have a badge, just because you're that authority figure, you feel like you're justified in whatever decision you're going to make."
Former New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said police culture is a critical piece of the discussion.
"We don't know how to police poor people," he said. "When you look at the vast majority of people who are shot and killed by law enforcement.. they usually are people who are living at the poverty level, person of color, who really the officer or officers in that department don't know how to police, don't know how to have a relationship with."
Campbell said it will take an unprecedented level of partnership between the community, police and state lawmakers to hold law enforcement accountable in incidents like the ones last month in Wethersfield and New Haven.
"So that it's not simply a department saying 'you're fired,' but there's a greater level of accountability," he explained. "An officer can be incarcerated, charged, not just lose their job. That's what has to happen."
Joshua Fee, a student at Hartford's Classical Magnet school said the recruitment of cops from outside of urban communities causes a disconnect between police and the public. "You're coming from Coventry, you're not going to have the same experience as somebody from Hartford. You're not going to know the culture around Hartford," he said. "You have this built-up perspective -- you don't really know the people you're working for."
Panel member Rodney Williams, whose nephew Paul Witherspoon was shot at by a Hamden and Yale police last month in New Haven refutes the notion that these are isolated incidents. He noted that all of the officers involved in the recent incidents were people of color.
"It's not a race thing, it's a police thing," he said.
He said that real change will only happen when the entire community comes together to demand change.
"It needs to be addressed," he said. "And until everybody comes together - when something happens to his family that my family comes, and those families that aren’t impacted come, it’s not going to stop."
He called for more officers to be recruited from the communities they'll be policing.
The State’s Attorney’s office is still investigating both recent shootings in Connecticut.