BETA

New Haven blues

Graphic by Haewon Ma

Barbara Fair was holding it together. It was past 6 p.m., and Mayor Toni Harp, ARC ’78, still hadn’t appeared. Fair and a group of 20 or so New Haven activist regulars filled the reception room of the mayor’s office, arms crossed, shifting weight from foot to foot. Harp’s office staff looked on uncomfortably. Fair stood in the center of the room with her daughter, Holly Tucker, who wore a shirt that said “I’m black. I read. I know sh**.” A small but vocal crowd, many of them representatives of activist groups like Unidad Latina en Acción and Answers Coalition, stood with them.

A protester squeezed Tucker’s shoulder supportively. They had been waiting for 20 minutes. Would they be willing to speak with someone else, maybe Mayor Harp’s chief of staff? “No,” Fair said. “We need to talk to the mayor, because that’s who we voted into office. They didn’t vote for the staff, they voted for Toni.” Minutes ticked by. The office staff continued to insist Harp was in a meeting and could not see the protesters. But Fair was holding it together.  Could they set up an appointment with Harp for a later date? “No! We’ve done that already,” Fair said, for at least the third time. “We set up something, we waited three weeks, and the day of the meeting, she canceled. We’ve been calling, and calling, and calling; leaving messages, talking to people, and for what?”

“She has just as much as a right to see her as I do, as you do,” chimed in an older white woman holding a cane, pointing to Tucker. “And if she were my child…I’m not violent, but God help me if she were my child…” Fair exhaled and shook her head. “Let me stay calm. Don’t even talk. I don’t need to hear what someone else would have did for their child, because I might lose it.”

Barbara Fair is one of New Haven’s most well-known activists, and has been confronting city officials in New Haven for almost thirty years to protest police brutality. In this protest, though, the grievances Fair wanted to bring to Mayor Harp were deeply personal. This time, Fair came to Harp with allegations of brutality by New Haven police officers against her own daughter, Holly Tucker.

Tucker’s allegations fit with a larger pattern of police violence affecting people of color across the country, and this is by no means the first incident of reported police brutality in New Haven. But New Haven’s police department has also been held up as a model for community policing, with President Obama even meeting with the former NHPD chief in a discussion about healing police-community relations. As leaders across the country look for solutions, it is worth considering New Haven’s fluctuating relationship to the community policing program.

***

“This was here. Where the clots were.” Holly Tucker showed me a photo on her phone of a forearm with deep purple-black bruises. “Oh, this was from pressing up against the window. I think he had to do something to my muscles, from squeezing it so tight, because my skin was kind of hanging, you know?” We were sitting on the couch in her house in a quiet neighborhood of Quinnipiac Meadows, and Tucker was talking me through the night a police officer threw her to the ground. Tucker is black. Both of the officers involved in her arrest are white.

Around 11 p.m. on Sat., Sept. 10, Tucker was driving home with a male passenger when, at the McDonalds on Foxon Boulevard, she noticed two police cars parked on either side of the street. Officers were directing traffic out of the parking lot after a drag race. Tucker stopped and waited. Once all the cars had exited, and the officer directing traffic had crossed the street to talk to an officer in one of the squad cars, Tucker started driving again, but she soon noticed that the two police cars were following her about twenty feet back. They did not flash their lights to flag her down. She pulled into a gas station and got out of the car. When she noticed the female officer, Jennifer McDermott, taking photos of her license plate, Tucker decided to start videotaping the officers on her phone.

Tucker confronted McDermott about what she was doing. McDermott gave her a verbal warning for disobeying an officer’s traffic direction, and asked for her license and registration. Tucker argued at first, but eventually got in her car to get the documents, passing them to the officer through her cracked window. McDermott took the documents back to her squad car, and returned with the other officer, Robert Stratton, hanging behind.

Things began to escalate quickly after that. McDermott told Tucker to get out of the car, and Tucker refused. Stratton began to pry the driver’s-side window down. “Stratton and McDermott get my window halfway down, and that’s when they grab my arms, twist my arms, pulling my arms and yelling at the same time ‘Open the window,’” Tucker told me. “And I’m like, ‘how am I gonna open the window when you have my arms?’”

Tucker showed me the fading bruises on her arm where the officers grabbed her through the window. “[Stratton] used his other hand to open my car door, take my seatbelt off, he pulls me out of the car, pushes me against the car, and footswipes me to the ground. And I had a dress on. You know, at this moment I’m like ‘what are you doing?!’ You know, I’m screaming ‘what are you doing??’”

Tucker believes that the incident began to escalate after McDermott had a chance to speak with Stratton in the other patrol car. Tucker had taken Stratton to court two months earlier to fight a traffic ticket, and Tucker thinks Stratton had a vendetta against her. While she was riding back to the police station cuffed in the back of the patrol car, Tucker says McDermott referenced the court case. “She showed me a half inch little cut, and said ‘you hurt my finger when you rolled up the window. And I have four kids and this is my job, and I know you like to take people to court.’” Tucker told me she had never met McDermott before that night. “I’m like, ‘wow, so you got that from Stratton, because you don’t know me.’”

The officers took her to the downtown police station. At this point, Tucker said she was having a severe anxiety attack, and asked the officers to take her to the hospital. “Instead of [McDermott] calling medical attention, she called the paddy wagon.” Tucker spent the night in jail, with a $25,000 bond. She had never been arrested before.

Tucker is 33, a student at Gateway Community College studying early childhood development. She hopes to transfer to Albertus Magnus next year, and eventually open her own daycare. She’s a single mom with a thirteen-year-old daughter. And, of course, she is an activist. She always has been—how could she not be, as the daughter of Barbara Fair? She’s black, and she’s seen and spoken out about cases of police brutality against black citizens in New Haven and across the country. When she was on the ground with an officer cuffing her hands, Tucker couldn’t keep herself from thinking of the incidents that ended with an officer taking a black life. In the next weeks, Tucker followed with the rest of the country the news of the shooting of Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa by a police officer, an unarmed black man shot standing next to his car in the middle of the street, and thought back to her own violent confrontation. “I thought, wow, that could have been me. I could have died.”

***

“You don’t have a meeting with the mayor, sorry.” The secretary crossed her arms, unflinching and unmoved. The activists erupted.

“We are the people, and we put her in office!”

“We the people!”

“She serves the community. She doesn’t serve herself.”

“If someone in this administration’s children got brutalized by police, (“That’s right!”) how long would it take them to set up a meeting to deal with police brutality (“Right!”)? When it’s someone from the community, when it’s someone they can just push to the side, meetings get canceled, people’s schedules fill up.”

“New Haven prides itself on community policing, but we’re the community.”

“Well, I see a community of police outside. That’s what I see.”

Although the frustration of activists in Mayor Harp’s office mostly focused on Harp’s absence and what they felt was a betrayal of the mayor’s promised open-door policy, there was also a clear sense of disillusionment in the room with the police department, and in particular the promise of community policing.

Because New Haven is a city that prides itself on community policing. Starting in the 1990s, under Chief Nicholas Pastore, New Haven’s police department became a pioneer nationwide in developing and instituting a model of community policing. Commitment to this model waned in subsequent decades, but this momentum reversed in 2011, when Mayor John DeStefano appointed Dean Esserman as police chief. Esserman had helped Pastore design the original community policing model back when he served as assistant chief, from 1991 to 1993. As chief, Esserman put theory to practice, assigning more officers to walk the beat, starting community conversation programs, and focusing on recruiting from the community. But even as Esserman was lauded nationally as a visionary in community-police relations during the turbulent years of Ferguson and beyond, his temperamental personality—and a few widely publicized gaffes, one involving Michelle Obama’s Secret Service—led many in New Haven to call for his dismissal. In July, Mayor Harp placed Esserman on leave, and he resigned in September. Esserman’s deputy, former Assistant Chief Anthony Campbell, is now serving as interim chief. With new leadership to arrive soon, New Haven residents inside and outside of the department are thinking critically about the current status of community policing in the city and how it might improve in the future.

***

To understand what “good” community policing could look like in New Haven, it’s perhaps instructive to look at an example of what community policing is not. And you only need to look a few years back and one town over—in East Haven—to see a textbook example of police-community relations gone wrong.

Reverend James Manship is the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven, a white guy who preaches in second-language Spanish to predominantly Latino parishioners. In 2008, Manship began to hear increasing accounts of discriminatory abuse that his Latino parishioners suffered at the hands of East Haven police. Although Manship’s parish church is in the Fair Haven neighborhood, in New Haven, a few of his parishioners are from East Haven, and many of his Fair Haven parishioners work and shop in the town, or pass through on their way to housecleaning jobs in Guilford. “They’re getting off Exit 61 on Route 95,” Manship said, “And the East Haven PD, back in the day, would just sit there and take people off—basically profiling Latinos coming off the highway from Fair Haven.”

The harassment Latinos suffered from the East Haven police was sometimes physically violent. Manship noted the case of Moises Marin, who was attacked by then-officer Dennis Spaulding for videotaping police harassment in front of his restaurant. Spaulding pushed Marin to the ground and kicked and stomped Marin, ultimately fracturing his vertebrae. “I really believe that the escalation and the violence towards members of the Latino community in East Haven was moving towards some sort of serious injury or fatality,” Manship said.

Initially, many parishioners Manship talked to didn’t want to take action against the police—some were scared; others just wanted to move on with their lives. But in February 2009, “four Ecuadorians were stopped and then beaten and abused by the East Haven PD,” Manship said. “The Ecuadorian community is a close-knit community in the parish, and they said ‘no, we don’t want anyone to suffer what we just suffered.’” So Manship and his congregation began to document police activity. Their work gained public attention in mid-February when the priest was arrested for filming an incident of racial profiling by the police in East Haven. Manship worked with Yale Law School students to collect affidavits from victims in the parish, and was instrumental in assembling a complaint that lead to a federal investigation of the EHPD by the Department of Justice.

The investigation’s conclusion was damning: “We found that EHPD engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos in violation of the Constitution and federal law,” the findings letter said. The report highlighted discriminatory traffic enforcement and treatment following traffic stops, as well as a failure to “design and implement internal systems that would identify and prevent” such conduct.

A settlement that followed required the town of East Haven to overhaul its police department under federal monitoring. Top administrative officers were replaced, and the department remodeled its training program with specific attention to anti-discrimination instruction. The settlement also required cameras in every patrol car and called for an increase in bilingual English- and Spanish- speaking officers.

For many, the East Haven case serves as an example of what can happen when a department commits—or is forced to commit—to major structural changes. Manship emphasized the importance of the DOJ’s external oversight in turning the EHPD around: “Police can’t police police. It’s a conflict of interest. You can’t have the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Manship thinks that community-police relations are better in New Haven; instances of discrimination are certainly less flagrant and frequent than they were in East Haven a few years ago. Still, some believe that the situation in New Haven requires radical solutions. Barbara Fair hopes to take a lesson from East Haven and involve the DOJ: “I can see now we’re not getting anywhere trying to work with the police here so that’s my bottom line: seeking out the DOJ to try and take a look at what’s going on in the city.”

***

What is going on in the city? The jury is still out on how well community policing is working in New Haven. John Jairo Lugo, one of the founders of the grassroots immigrants’ and workers’ rights group Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), believes that the NHPD is more receptive than departments in surrounding cities: “At least you can create some noise and force them to sit with you. And we have been doing that.” As a community organizer, Lugo said he has received support from the police department’s high administration. But, he said, that support doesn’t necessarily translate into a change of behavior by officers on the ground.

Luiz Casanova, assistant chief of the NHPD in charge of the Professional Standards and Trainings Bureau, agreed that this inconsistency—“where the top’s talking about it, but the cops are not doing it”—has plagued the department in the past: “you can’t just assume that because you’re teaching it, you’re training it, that they’re doing it.”

The discrepancy between administrative cooperation and on-the-ground recalcitrance has consequences that Lugo has suffered personally. This summer, because of a family illness in Colombia, he missed a court date for an incident in which he was ticketed for protesting without a permit. He tried to reschedule the trial, but at another protest in New Haven, officers confronted him, saying they had a rearrest warrant. After Lugo argued with them, the officers tried to grab him. “They threw me on the floor. I got arrested, and I spent the entire night in jail. So that’s my experience with community policing.”

Lugo and other members of ULA joined Fair and Tucker at City Hall on Wednesday. In a written list of demands for Mayor Harp, the protesters asked that—in addition to removing the officers involved in Tucker’s arrest—Harp ensure that “officers involved in continuing to harass and arrest our friend, John Lugo, be disciplined.” The letter also advocated for a civilian review board with subpoena power.

The importance of feedback from the community is paramount to Casanova. Although he manages the Internal Affairs Division, he believes that “the best check of all is not the internal check, [but] the external check, when the community is feeling that we’re doing community-based policing.” He hoped that Mayor Harp would take that notion to heart and bring in, as the next chief, “someone who believes that the community must, must, be on the police agenda.”

As New Haven looks forward to a new chief, many residents—activists and officers alike—look back on an old one as a model: Pastore. Casanova said that he was “masterful” when it came to the community-based model. Even Barbara Fair agreed, remarking, “Under former Chief Pastore there was true community policing.”

People speak of Pastore with a sense of awe and appreciation that he would not have predicted when he first began to implement his policies. I met him at his family business, an auto repair shop called The Car E.R. He stressed the opposition he faced from a department he depicted as militaristic: “There was no thinking to better socialize the industry of policing. What they were concerned about was buying tanks, helicopters, and more guns too. And that’s a sign of being a coward.” Pastore believes that a Mafia-like system of “inherent corruption” dominated the department at the time, and that officers felt “threatened” by his plans to upset that system.

But the political upheaval that Pastore remembers is not what he is remembered for. Instead, it is his smaller acts of kindness and outreach. As Fair put it, “he’s the kind of chief who would have been standing on the corner talking to the guys. Somebody might be hungry, they’ll buy him a slice of pizza. All that kind of stuff. And then he might have officers who’d be playing ball with the kids or something.”

“He believed in helping folks,” said Casanova. “And so do we.”

But Fair, and those who joined her on the steps of City Hall, do not see that belief put into practice. Fair noted that many officers do not even live within the city limits, and as a result, the city’s claims to community policing are false. “There’s no community policing here,” she said. “It’s just been on paper and in words.”

***

“Hello, we have a letter to deliver to you,” said Fair.

After half an hour of waiting outside of the Mayor’s office, a door had swung open, and Mayor Harp had emerged.

“Okay,” said Harp, taking the envelopes.

“You people lie so much,” one of the protesters muttered, about claims the staff had made that Harp was not in the building. “Don’t even,” said Fair before pressing on to announce to Harp their first demand, the removal of the officers who pulled her daughter from the car.

“Well, why don’t you tell me your side?” said Harp, to Tucker. “I’ve heard the other side.” (New Haven police have not commented publicly on the incident, since it is still under investigation.)

“I’ve told so many times—I know they told you,” said Tucker. The other activists encouraged her: “Come on, Holly, just the basic story.” Tucker sighed, fighting back tears. “My heart is racing, and I haven’t even told the story. I’m tired of telling the story.” The other activists jumped in to fill Tucker’s silence. But after some time, Tucker said “let me show you,” and pulled out the video she taped of the officer interaction on her phone. She walked Harp through the incident. Harp listened quietly, asking questions from time to time: “You were out of the car here?” “Did she say why they wanted you to—I mean, when it escalated, why?”

After watching the video, Harp promised to meet with the interim chief to follow up on Tucker’s case, and pledged to use executive order to start a civilian review board. She listened to John Jairo Lugo’s arrest situation. “Andrea has all your information? Okay, I will look into that. I’ll talk to the state’s attorneys.”

The next day, I asked Tucker what she thought of the mayor’s response. “I don’t know. I’m trying to put faith in her,” she said. “You know, they get a slap on the wrist, the police officers. So, I just—I don’t know until she does something.”

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