Hartford mayor, police chief, help Obama sell policing initiative

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, left, outside the White House with Bishop Jeremiah Torres and Police Chief James Rovella, right.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, left, outside the White House with Bishop Jeremiah Torres and Police Chief James Rovella, right.

Washington – Mayor Pedro Segarra and Hartford Police Chief James Rovella were among dozens of officials invited to the White House Thursday to help President Obama promote a policing initiative aimed at preventing the types of police shootings that touched off riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

Grasping a copy of the White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Rovella said he has applied for federal funds to implement one of six “pillars” of the report – the one that aims to upgrade police procedures and strengthen oversight and transparency.

To Rovella, the most valuable aspect of the day-long series of seminars, capped by an event that featured U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, was “the experience of sitting down with other jurisdictions and kind of exchanging ideas of what works and what doesn’t.”

The task force was formed in December after a series of high-profile deaths at the hands of police and public protests calling for greater accountability.

But even with the support of a police department like Hartford’s, it will be difficult for Obama to persuade all of the nation’s 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies, who have a strong preference for local control of local issues, to adopt new policing methods recommended in the task force’s report.

Some of the report’s recommendations – such as the use of body cameras – may also be too costly for a  police force budget.

Yet Segarra said “the policing climate needs to change.”

“It’s very important for police to have a new perspective,” he said. “We’ve seen what happened in Baltimore, we’ve seen what happened in Ferguson, and we need to learn from what happened.”

The task force report called for a “a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities.”

Finding that type of diversity had been hard for many police departments, even those like Hartford’s that says it is trying to hire more minorities.

According to an analysis earlier this year, only about 12 percent of the 430 members of Hartford’s police department are black, while the city has a nearly 39 percent black population. New Britain has a nearly 37 percent Latino population, but only about 7 percent of its police officers are Hispanic. Nearly 29 percent of Meriden’s population is black, but only about 8 percent of its police officers are African-American.

There are also lingering effects of past problems.

Hatford Mayor Pedro Segarra in Washington being interviewed after the community policing conference.

Hatford Mayor Pedro Segarra in Washington being interviewed after the community policing conference.

For example, a lawsuit stemming from the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old Latino man by a Hartford police officer in 1969 resulted in a federal court consent decree that set guidelines for the training, supervision and use of deadly force in the department. The Hartford police are still under federal oversight because of that shooting in what is considered one of the longest-running cases of its kind.

Segarra said he is trying to open more “pipelines” between the minority communities and the police department by tapping high school students for internships and summer law enforcement jobs.

Hartford has also had a recent spike in gun violence, which has left 18 people dead and many more wounded. Segarra said one reason for the spike is “a much higher re-entry rate” of people who are leaving jails under new state policies.

The town of East Haven was also subject to a 2009 Department of Justice civil rights probe that found a pattern of police discrimination and bias against Latinos. The town entered into a consent decree that required a number of changes in its police department.

Lynch was in East Haven this week to promote the Task Force on 21st Century Policing report and highlighted some of those changes.

East Haven Police Chief Brent Larrabee and East Haven Joseph Maturo Jr. attended the White House policing forum Thursday. So did Bishop Jeremiah Torres, of the House of Restoration in Hartford.

He called the community policing report “awesome.”

“It talks about all the angles that are important to the community,” he said.

Greater Hartford NAACP President Imam Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari also attended the White House forum.

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