Ten days before this year’s Juneteenth, the city of New Haven agreed to the largest settlement for a police misconduct lawsuit in the country’s history.
But in the days after, few of Connecticut’s statewide elected officials had publicly shared any sympathies, regrets or sorrows for what Randy Cox had endured over the last year. Cox, the beneficiary of the historic $45 million agreement, was injured and neglected while in police custody.
Sliding head-first into the interior wall of a speeding transport van. Paralysis. The policy changes and civil lawsuit that followed. The subsequent criminal charges against five officers. The finger pointing and even some of the officers’ firings. It was all notable, as was some of the silence. Nine months after Cox was injured, his mother, Doreen Coleman, confirmed that she had yet to hear from any of the top office-holders.
For more than a dozen Black residents in the state’s most populous cities, Coleman’s reality validated what they had already recognized.
“To be honest, I don’t think they care,” said Mark Robinson, standing near a New Haven protest in January for Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died after being assaulted by Memphis police. “They’re not really trying to change, because if you’re trying to change, you really gotta get down with the people.”
In the three years since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, a tragedy that set off a global wave of protests along with the passage of Connecticut’s police accountability law, many Black residents interviewed by The Connecticut Mirror feel that little has actually changed — and that ongoing conversations about policing haven’t centered enough on their personal experiences or the well-being of their communities.
At the onset of this year’s legislative session, Republican lawmakers introduced a slate of bills attempting to chip away at the law, which established a legal duty for police to intervene and report misconduct, tightened standards for use of force and replicated in state law a federal right to sue officers for violations of individual rights.
GOP legislators have blamed the law for staffing shortages in police departments and for what they see as low morale among officers. They have criticized it during debates on a bevy of legislation ranging from traffic stops to gun control. While doing so, they have continued raising alarm about violent crime in a state where it is trending downward.
And while some officials have at times remained silent on police misconduct happening in or close to their towns, they have scrambled to populate the email inboxes of state residents, sending messages of both condolences and disappointment, when wrongdoing has occurred thousands of miles away.
Some officials have suggested that police violence is less likely to happen in Connecticut, despite what happened to Cox and others.
“I think it depends on what city you’re in and the color of your skin,” said LaToya Boomer, Cox’s older sister.
Black residents comprise nearly 13% of Connecticut’s population, roughly more than 460,000 of 3.6 million people, according to the latest census. Their numbers are greatest in the state’s five most populous cities — Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury.
But residing in one of the most segregated and wealthiest states in the country also comes with pitfalls. Black people routinely fare among the worst in having their basic needs met. The same holds true during interactions with police, where they are disproportionately subject to traffic stops, arrests and force. They are also nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
On multiple occasions, the behavior of Connecticut police officers has received national attention.
In 1997, the New Haven slaying of Malik Jones by officer Robert Flodquist galvanized the region unlike any event in recent memory at the time. Similarly, the disregard for Cox’s life drew comparisons to Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, an incident that, as former President Barack Obama indicated, was not new and shouldn’t be treated as such.
“We shouldn’t have a Randy Cox. We shouldn’t have a Malik Jones,” said Emma Jones, Malik’s mother and a long-time activist. “If people say, ‘Show me where there’s a problem,’ I immediately say Randy Cox and all of the other Randy Coxs who didn’t get any press … there’s no accountability for it, and people are literally afraid to say what happened to them.”
The public’s perception of policing “is reality,” added Shafiq Abdussabur, a New Haven mayoral candidate who spent 21 years as an officer in the city’s police department. “And so you have to respect that belief. If they say, ‘Hey, listen, I feel like the police don’t respect me … then the question and the challenge for law enforcement is, ‘OK, what do I need to do to change that?’”
Throughout the first half of the year, the CT Mirror visited neighborhoods in Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury, and spoke with more than a dozen Black residents about the quality of policing in their communities and what they feel needs to change.
They shared stories about their traumatizing encounters with police. Some of the events were said to have happened years ago without an arrest and therefore were based on memory only. Through the conversations, the Mirror sought to learn how people’s experiences have shaped public sentiment about law enforcement today.
Some people said they are actively preparing their children for their own inevitable run-ins with officers. Others are certain that both law enforcement and state officials are disconnected from their neighborhoods. And many believe that interactions with those sworn to serve and protect has created generational fear, distrust and resentment.
‘Guilty ’til proven innocent’
London Jones was driving through Hartford’s North End sometime around 2011 when he was pulled over.
At the time, he worked as a cook at a nearby Jewish hospital and had little reason to believe that he was in trouble or that the stop was about anything serious.
So when the officers asked for his name, he answered them. Before he knew it, he said, they had their guns pointed at him and placed him in handcuffs.
Maybe it was because of recent gang activity in the area, he thought. But he wasn’t brandishing a weapon. In any event, he had no clue why their level of aggression was necessary or why they kept telling him to “just relax” when anyone else in his shoes would have also struggled to keep it together.
But they soon realized they had the wrong person, he said. “That’s not him, that’s not him,” he recalls hearing.
“You’re guilty ’til proven innocent,” said Jones, 50, on a winter afternoon in Hartford. “At the same time, they don’t want to say you’re a threat because you’re a minority.”
Conrad Jones, who resides in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood and who by coincidence has the same last name, feels similarly.
Jones, 61, points to a summer day in the early 2000s, when he stopped after work to purchase beer while cooling his exhaustion from a day working construction. He cracked the cold drink open and sipped it while standing in front of his mother’s residence, a house on a quiet street tucked a short walk away from a barbershop, a Catholic church and a Jamaican incense store.
A police officer came from around the corner, Jones said, and told him that he and his neighborhood friends couldn’t drink the beer in front of the residence and needed to go to the backyard. He believes the officer was trying to antagonize them, something he said happened frequently back then. Jones told the officer, who was white, to “go f- – – yourself,” and proceeded to go into the house.
“We weren’t bothering anybody,” said Jones, sitting on the bed of his brother’s old light blue Chevy pickup truck in front of the same house. “We were just standing in front of our house. We were obviously in work clothes, we were dirty.”
Interactions like those shared by the two men have taken place for decades, some said, so much so that residents have grown to expect the worst when officers approach them.
Gene Thompson and Jeffery Spidel, two Waterbury residents holding casual conversation in an alleyway near a convenience store, said when police enter their neighborhoods, “they’re trying to take somebody back downtown.”
During a recent summer, Spidel was sitting on his front porch when police came by and ordered him to go inside, he said. He was told that if he didn’t comply, he would go to jail. He decided to follow the order, understanding that trying to defend himself in any way would likely worsen the situation.
“You don’t want to deal with that. You don’t want to go to jail,” Spidel said. “Who wants to go to jail for breach of peace or creating a disturbance and have to go through the court system for months when you can just go inside and get it over with? But that’s the type of thing you gotta deal with.”
Teaching kids about police interactions
Beyond the consequences of routine interactions with law enforcement, Spidel said, police “don’t see us as people,” a sentiment that resonates with some Black mothers raising young children.
Rasheda Rivers’ 2-year-old son, Jazai, gives a soft high-five. He grips his miniature toy car like a rolled up dollar bill. When it’s chilly outside, his nose gets runny. And he seems to enjoy when his mother picks him up and holds him, despite being capable of standing on his own.
Rivers, a hair braider who has lived in Waterbury for the last three years after moving from New York, sees a human being when she looks at Jazai and her two other sons, and hopes to raise her children in a state where police view them in the same manner.
“I want my sons to know that when you see the police, you don’t have to be scared. You know that they’re here not just for the white people and the Asian people. They’re here for his young Black self too,” said Rivers, holding Jazai while waiting for her other son, Tristan, to get off his school bus. “They can call on and need help too and not be, ‘Oh, because his pants are sagging a little bit, he’s a gangbanger or because he’s wearing this, he’s a gangbanger, or just because he’s a young Black man, he doesn’t deserve the help.’”
Although Rivers hasn’t personally experienced police violence since moving to Waterbury, she notices the police presence in the community and knows that it can happen anywhere. She wants her sons to keep the same cautious mindset when interacting with law enforcement.
She tells Ryan, her 18-year-old son, that if he gets pulled over, he needs to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times.
“You gotta be aware, whether you’re getting pulled over or stopped, you just gotta do what they’re telling you to do,” Rivers said. “Because you don’t know exactly who’s pulling you over. You have to be careful.”
Aneta Adams, a school bus driver living in Hartford’s North End with her three sons, ages 14, 10, and 7, said policing in the community “is not as excellent as we hope it would be,” and that she began teaching her boys how to interact with police practically from birth.
“When you see the police, hold your hands up and keep quiet. Just shut your mouth,” said Adams, sitting in the lobby of the Community Health Services center. “Don’t say nothing. Because you might say the wrong thing and piss off the wrong person, and you’re not here tomorrow.”
Last year, she received a call from her friend who had just been pulled over. He called hoping she could help him calm his nerves, she said. Listening through the phone, she remembers the officer’s tone during the stop as “aggression.”
That’s why it’s important for her children to know how to interact with police. No matter what happens, she wants them “back home alive.”
“You ask any young minority here. If they see police, they’re running for their life even if they do nothing wrong,” she said. “Because they’re not sure if they’re gonna see tomorrow.”
Joan Biggs also raised her son, who is now 35, in the Hartford area. When he was in middle school, she recalled, police would return the neighborhood kids home if they got into mischief. But that type of community policing no longer exists, she said, causing fear for some who have to interact with an officer.
“Police is not someone you should be scared of,” said Biggs, who with her husband runs the King David House of Essence in New Haven, a store selling sea moss, herbs, weight loss products and incense. “Police is a person you should have confidence in because they’re supposed to be protecting you.”
But police officers and state officials aren’t doing what it takes to make sure they’re connected with the communities they serve, Biggs said.
And Chuck Jones, a 58-year-old homeowner in Bridgeport’s East End, believes that if police are patrolling a neighborhood, they should have meaningful relationships with the people living there.
He also said that if Black lives mattered in Connecticut, officials would meet more frequently with residents to figure out how to improve the current circumstances outside of when it’s convenient for them.
“How could you be relevant to me if you haven’t been through what I’ve been through?” he asked, standing near his home wearing a gray Raiders T-shirt and black, red and white pajama pants. “You need to let them know that you are there for them. I’m here to protect you. I’m not here to hurt you. Don’t make people fear you.”
People like Sethfon Copper and Shammar Dozier, two friends attending high school in Waterbury, said they already see police making a concerted effort to get involved with their communities and improve how residents view them. But it feels like officials don’t always see them as a priority, they said.
“There’s some people who do care about us, but it’s definitely some people who don’t, who just don’t think about us as people, as human beings,” Dozier said. “But there are some people who are trying to make a change for us.”
Arjae Hill, a freshman at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, shares a positive outlook on policing, partly because his older sister is a police officer in Meriden and talks about how she wants to change the profession for the better.
“I definitely feel like if police officers could get more in tune to what we go through, the things we do on a day to day basis, I feel like they would get a better understanding,” Hill said. “Because with that, we would find common ground and find interests we share.”
Isabelle Jean-Baptiste, a junior studying economics and political science at the same school, said she’s less certain about whether the overall narrative of policing can change, because she feels the system currently works as was intended. But she does hope it improves some.
“I feel like they’re so fearful of Black people for whatever reason,” she said. “I feel like they get away with what they do because they have ties within the police community. So it’s easy for it to get brushed under the rug. So being held accountable for that, I think, would help.”
Robinson, the man attending the protest in New Haven, has a different outlook.
“People don’t care about a person who is still alive,” he said. “It’s usually when you’re dead. That’s when everybody comes out, and it’s a hashtag. But once you’re alive and you can speak, it’s like they really don’t care.”