America’s legacy of violence against people of color manifests itself in the criminal legal system and policing practices. We recognize this when we say the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant and the many others whose lives have been cut short by this system and these practices.
New Haven residents recognized this legacy in holding a vigil to honor victims of police brutality the night before former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts of murder in the case of George Floyd’s death. The injustices that have garnered national attention have been accompanied by video footage from body cameras and citizen cell phones, but there are countless experiences that go unseen, some resulting in deaths others not, though still leaving both mental and physical scars, including in Connecticut.
Cora (name changed to protect her identity, as are *others in this article) describes being physically assaulted by a police officer while waiting for a friend to fill his car at a gas station just outside of New Haven. The officer, who had been following them, accused Cora of being drunk. Becoming frustrated, she told the officer not only that she was sober but that she was not even the driver, when “…he just straight up decked me in my eye, in my right eye, and I don’t remember – I know he kept tasering me, tasering me, and I landed from one side of the gas station all the way on that [other] side.” Cora details her pleas for help. “I kept asking him, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And he was on top of me – he was about 320 pounds, this man.”
Cora’s traumatic night did not stop with the gas station encounter. She described being arrested and subsequently Maced in her cell by the same officer. He refused to provide his identification and stabbed her in the neck with his badge’s pin when she threatened to report him. She ended the night sitting backwards on a toilet in her cell, splashing water into her eyes to flush out the Mace when officers refused her water. Eventually, after the toilet bowl was nearly emptied, Cora was dragged outside and hosed down. The next morning, she arrived at the courthouse, barefoot, still soaked, and with a bruised eye.
Cora suffers from PTSD, which she partially attributes to her experience with the police. She explains “I get scared walking down the street with police, I’m scared of the paramedics, I’m scared of anybody of-of a little higher authority ’cause I think that anybody has the power to-to really do damage to my life further…”
Another JustHouHS participant, Brooklyn*, a Black woman, attributes her mistrust of police to witnessing an officer put his foot on her son’s back when arresting him. Other respondents similarly describe how the violence they witness and endure causes them to fear and avoid law enforcement. Isaiah*, a Black man explained, “Even when a police car drives by I’m on point…I notice them, you understand, and that shouldn’t be, you know, 24/7. I shouldn’t be afraid of the police.”
We asked Tom*, also a Black man, if he would ever call the police for help: “I don’t think I could do that. I lived in the streets too long. I-I lived a life too long for me to now turn around and call the – be the one to call the police. I don’t think I can.” Tom was not alone in his sentiments: half of respondents indicated they did not report a crime against them to avoid interacting with the police. The fear of police expressed by these respondents is informed not only by media coverage of police brutality, but also by the everyday traumatic experiences of policing among Connecticut residents.
Negative, and in this case violent, experiences with the police are more common than we’d like to believe and disproportionately experienced by people of color. Our 2021 Community Report details findings from 1,645 surveys and 211 qualitative interviews conducted over two years with a cohort of 400 New Haven residents about their experiences with policing and the criminal legal system in Connecticut. Almost a quarter of individuals we surveyed indicated that law enforcement had used a weapon against them at some point in their lives, and the same percentage of individuals had physical force used against them by an officer. Overall, three quarters of respondents believed the police are too quick to use deadly force, and over half believed that the police are not held accountable for their actions. Additionally, more than a third of participants reported they had been unfairly stopped by the police due to their race/ethnicity, of which almost half were African American participants.
Our findings are not unique. They align with DataHaven’s 2018 Wellbeing Survey that reported nearly a quarter of Black individuals and a fifth of Latinos have experienced unfair or abusive treatment by the police multiple times in the past three years, compared to less than a tenth of white survey takers. Nationally, Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. These statistics are the same for Connecticut. Additionally, while narratives of police violence typically center around Black men, the systemic oppression and brutality by law enforcement is experienced by women as well. Although Black men have the highest lifetime risk of being murdered by police, Black and Indigenous women are significantly more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. Gender-based violence can take the form of physical harm, as Cora experienced, but also sexual and psychological forms, as brought to light recently in the case of officer Gary Gamarra.
Rates of police violence in Connecticut are low compared to other states, but Black people are still 3.1 times as likely to be killed by police in Connecticut as white people and Latinos are 1.7 times as likely. We cannot forget Mubarak Soulemane who was killed by Connecticut police officers just last year; and Joseph Donaby who, in 2011, was filmed being beaten by police officers in New Haven. The Coras, Isaiahs, Brooklyns, and Toms may be less well known but their experiences deserve to be heard as well. Together, they indicate both the pervasiveness of the problem and the many harms that it produces.
Last summer the Connecticut legislature passed HB 6004 An Act Concerning Police Accountability (AACPA). This is one small step toward addressing police violence in the state. But we need a full reckoning with the systemic racism deeply embedded within and regularly reproduced by law enforcement and the carceral system. This reckoning will require us to learn more about the everyday experiences of our residents, to include them in our work as researchers and advocates, and to be bold in creating a truly just system. We will all be better off for it.
Helen Moore is a graduate of the Yale School of Public Health and a Postgraduate Associate of American University’s Justice, Housing and Health Study (JustHouHS). She wrote this in collaboration with other JustHouHS researchers.