As Claudia Rankine’s new play The White Card premieres at Boston’s Paramount Theatre, Ploughshares is proud to publish Catina Bacote’s “The Other America,” which investigates police brutality and the failure of community policing in New Haven, Connecticut, discussing Rankine’s Citizen in relation to the author’s experiences.
Claudia Rankine’s poems, essays, and video collaborations remind me that my pain is not insignificant or mine alone. But they are not a balm. Or a solution. They don’t soothe me in any way. Actually, to pore over her work, hurts. But I can’t turn away from it anymore than I can turn away from my black body.
Rankine renders us visible. She transforms our terrible, most intimate moments into a collective experience and makes the frame around our public tragedies smaller. Her work exposes those who exploit, and abuse, and malign, and harm out of hate or ignorance. She shows us the disconnect between people in close proximity and points to all these bodies “moving through the same life differently.” As I write about black people’s encounters with the police, I use her work as a literary map to hone my questions and to help me find my voice.
Today, in every state in the country, police departments have adopted a model of law enforcement called community policing. The heart of the program centers on officers forming trusting partnerships with residents, the vast majority of whom are black. For over two decades the federal government has funded local initiatives, and supporters of the program include liberal and conservative politicians, civil rights leaders, and grassroots activists. In many circles community policing is touted as the most humane way to police the disenfranchised.
Yet, we are a nation in trouble. Black neighborhoods are over-policed, racial profiling and for-profit policing is widespread, and state-sanctioned violence against black men, women, and children persists.
Perhaps, those supporting community policing need to take a closer look. In national law enforcement and political arenas, the police department in New Haven, Connecticut is praised as a model of community policing. But in July 2016, a local Community and Police Relations Task Force released a report that calls into question the effectiveness of the policy and its practices.
In a video posted to YouTube, a white New Haven policeman has a young black teenager pinned against an SUV. The officer is behind her with his arm locked around one of hers. Her mouth is closed. She isn’t flailing, or kicking, or trying to run. He puts his leg against hers and slams her to the ground. With the side of his arm, he presses his body weight onto her back. Six cops swarm them while others move bystanders along.
Sirens blare in the background. The black teenager holding the camera says, “Oh, damn!” He says “Damn” over and over again. The only other thing he says is: “Hey, that’s fucked up!” He had probably already seen the videos capturing the murder of Tamir Rice and the dead body of Michael Brown. Maybe he also knew about the teenager Rekia Boyd, who was shot in the back of her head by a police officer. And even though he might not have heard about the deaths of Michelle Cusseaux, or Yvette Smith, or Tanisha Anderson, or Alesia Thomas, or Shelly Frey, he may have sensed that anything could happen, even in broad daylight and in front of a crowd
A white girl bounces along, crosses the camera, and smiles like she’s having fun. She shrieks, “Oh shit” like she can’t wait to tell her friends. Another raises her arms in celebration, cheering.
The video is shot on March 15, 2015 and the backdrop is a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Irish step dancers, fife and drum corps, floats, and bands of all kinds create a festive atmosphere downtown. Parade goers number in the tens of thousands, and many of them wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” sweatshirts and leprechaun hats. Right around the corner, the manager of Buffalo Wild Wings has called the police to report a fight inside the restaurant. By the time the officers arrive most of the teenagers who had been involved have fled. But one young woman, a fifteen-year old, whose family calls her Anna, is still there. Officer Joshua Smereczynsky handcuffs her and brings her outside.
From start to finish, the video clip takes forty-three seconds. For most of it Anna lies face down in the dirty snow.
After I watched it for the first time, I scrolled down the list of other links to other videos: “Police Forcibly Arrest 15-year old boy”; “Tacoma cop abuses 15-year-old girl for riding bike through map parking lot”; “Phoenix Police officer Patrick Larrison Assaults 15-Year-Old Girl”; “Police Beat 15 Year Old Female In Holding Cell”; “15 year old knocked out by cop”; “Police officer slamming 15 year old at William Tolman High School in Pawtucket Rhode Island.”
As the country raged with viral videos of police violence, legal acquittals, mass protests, and uprisings, I thought about Anna. I grew up in New Haven and suspected that facets of her life have been like mine. I wondered how she’s been holding up. Eventually, I contacted her mother, Valerie Boyd. The first time we spoke on the telephone we shared a little bit about ourselves and found out that we had family members who lived in the same neighborhood. But before Boyd agreed to talk with me about her daughter’s experience she asked—“Are you black?” Even though she knew little about me, my answer was enough for her to believe that I could understand Anna’s story.
My conversation with Boyd made me think about a time I was surrounded by people who couldn’t seem to fathom the danger of living in a black body. One day in the spring of 1993, my white college professor asked students in the course to describe the police in our home cities. This was two years after Los Angeles police tased and beat Rodney King and the video of it went worldwide. But my sociology professor didn’t pose the question as a provocation. He meant it as a classroom warm-up, a way to prompt us to call up familiar images of the men and women in blue. In the go-round, my classmates used words like “pleasant,” “nonexistent,” and “friendly.” With each answer I grew more and more alone.
From what I could tell, all my peers were white. Over the course of the semester, I also gleaned that they hailed mostly from New England middle- or upper-class families. I grew up on the East Coast, too, only a half-hour drive from our classroom at Wesleyan University. But my family lived in a housing project where all the residents were black.
I had come from what Claudia Rankine refers to as “the Other America.” In an interview with National Public Radio, she said, “There are two worlds out there; two Americas out there. If you’re a white person, there’s one way of being a citizen in our country; and if you’re a brown or a black body, there’s another way of being a citizen and that way is very close to death.”
When the go-round got to me I described the police in my community with the first word that came to mind—“brutal.”
There was a short pause. I heard an uncomfortable chuckle and a shuffling of papers. If anyone had asked me to say more I would have told them about my friend’s birthday party where a neighbor’s complaint about loud music led to the police hitting people with flashlights and walkie-talkies. Or I could have told them about my aunt who called the police to get her ex-boyfriend to leave her house and ended up being thrown down a flight of stairs by an officer. Or I could have told them about the Beat Down Posse, what the police department called the Anti-Gang Task Force. Members of the posse drove around in unmarked vans. On occasion they jumped out and pummeled guys standing on corners and along curbs.
A week later my sociology class had visitors. There hadn’t been any notice on the syllabus about guests or an announcement from the professor; nevertheless, in the front of the room sat three officers from the New Haven Police Department (NHPD). They explained how effective the department’s nationally recognized community policing program had been in the last two years at “bridging the gap between the police and community.” By “community” they didn’t mean the affluent neighborhoods populated mostly by white doctors, bankers, and college officials, but the eight housing projects and the adjoining neighborhoods where the majority of the residents were black and poor.
Each officer in the classroom boasted about a different aspect of the program: sensitivity training for members of the department, walking patrols that took officers out of their cruisers and onto the streets, meetings with social-service providers, and an effort by officers to work with residents to prevent crime. They seemed especially proud that the New Haven police chief Nicholas Pastore had been featured on 60 Minutes to share the department’s accomplishments. Police chiefs from other cities came to New Haven to learn from his successes.
When Pastore began the job as chief of police in 1990, the city had four times as many families living in poverty than in the rest of the state, it was ranked sixth in violent crimes in American cities with a similar population, and a significant number of black residents were concentrated in public housing. Before Pastore’s arrival, the department had been run by a former Marine Corps Officer named William Farrell who liked to recognize his officers’ achievements by adorning them with military regalia. His efforts at militarizing the force didn’t end there, either. Under Farrell’s tenure, the department secured AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and a BearCat specialized vehicle with steel armor plates, a roof-mounted camera, and ballistic glass windows. What’s more, the first thing residents saw when entering the police station lobby was a sheet of bulletproof glass. Under Farrell, an ethos of “us versus them” dominated police culture.
Then John Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor, appointed Pastore as chief of police and charged him with rolling out a new form of policing. Pastore removed the physical relics of Farrell’s leadership and implemented a few changes in practices. Some officers had to abandon their cruisers for walking beats. The department also opened seven police substations in “high-crime” areas—often empty apartments—that were supposed to function as resources for community members and spaces where police could build relationships with residents.
The housing project I lived in was one of the neighborhoods that got a substation. It was in an empty corner apartment with a New Haven Police Department placard in a window. We debated how frequently it was used, though we were never sure. A reverend told me in a prophetic tone, “They have put the jailhouse in our house.” It wasn’t that we didn’t want to live in a neighborhood with fewer drugs and guns, but we didn’t see the police as guarantors of our safety.
After the three police officers spoke to the class they took questions. The room had no windows and tiered seating, and somehow I had ended up in a middle row. I kept my eyes on my books but after a while my attention had nowhere else to go but to the scene unfolding around me. My classmates raised their hands. Spoke up. Nodded their heads. Some even took notes. It seemed to me that everyone in that room, besides me, believed every claim and anecdote the police tossed our way.
I didn’t say a word. What good would it have done? I already knew that New Haven, a city of only twenty square miles, was large enough to hold two versions of policing—an official and unofficial one.
A few months before that class visit, I’d attended a forum in New Haven on police abuse, sponsored by the All African People’s Congress (AAPC), a local political organization. The members of the AAPC wanted the forum to lead to a federal investigation of the department’s abuses and new protocols for investigating misconduct. When I arrived at the Dixwell Community House, an hour early, almost every seat had been taken, and people stood in the back of the room and in the hallway. I looked around and saw young dudes and old folks, do-rags and church hats, work uniforms and dress slacks. The people around me differed in so many ways but one: We were all black.
For many in the room, the AAPC had become the sole watchdogs of the police. Recently, the organization had conducted an investigation into the murder of Ronald Carney, a black man who lived in New Haven.
At five in the morning on January 6, 1992 three officers picked Carney up off the street and put him in a police cruiser. They said he fit a description of a robbery suspect and drove him to a bank parking lot. There were no video cameras to capture what happened but police claimed Carney locked his arms around an officer, grabbed the gun out of the officer’s holster, and fired three shots. Officer Diane Langston, a black woman, shot him in the back of the head.
Twenty-three years old, Carney was killed two weeks after his mother died. She had battled cancer for a long time and it had been reported that they were very close. His girlfriend of nine years had also recently ended their relationship. In the New Haven Register his alleged actions against the police were portrayed as an emotional breakdown of a “grieving soul.”
An anonymous source provided the AAPC with police tapes and written reports from the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The members of the organization found several inconsistencies about the shooting and demanded the department answer more questions. Why wasn’t Carney handcuffed? Why had he been driven to a parking lot? Who was the victim of the attempted robbery? How could Carney fire three shots and not hit an officer? The department refused to provide more information, so the AAPC took their questions to the state prosecutor, the mayor, and a superior court judge. But no one gave them any answers, and the state prosecutor cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
Under scrutiny, the police version of Carney’s death seemed fabricated and improbable to so many in the black community. But the NHPD had wide-ranging authority in the city and the public’s ear: whereas we wielded little political power, and in the legal arena had no voice at all.
At the forum, people approached the podium to recount their worst experiences with the police. No one listening shouted out in protest or stomped his or her feet in solidarity. I think we had waited so long for an evening like this that we wanted to be the best witnesses possible, silent and taking in every painful word.
For three hours, the stories piled up, accounts that were glaringly absent from the media coverage of policing in New Haven. Even the left-leaning New York Times reported that under community policing the NHPD, “… abandoned their confrontational stance, put on a more sympathetic face and tried to work with neighborhood residents, including gang members and drug dealers, to stop the violence.” After one man spoke he passed around photos of his bloodied eyes and broken ankle. A fifty-five-year-old woman described how she used her body to protect her son from police blackjacks. Neither of their stories had been printed or broadcast anywhere.
After the forum I stepped out onto Dixwell Avenue, the most heavily populated black neighborhood in the city. Decades ago it had been one of the few places black families could live and it became known as Negro Town. Remnants of the old neighborhood could still be seen in the black churches and hairdressing salons, but most striking were the empty storefronts and the abandoned factory buildings.
Along with everyone else I milled around, even though I had no reason to stay. Later I read that a few cops were at the forum. They might have been standing outside too, blending in with their black bodies. But once we left and returned to the wider city, they would go one way and everyone else another. Or maybe not. After all, each and every one of us was at the mercy of an unjust system, propped up by people who understood so little about us.
After the police officers visited my class at Wesleyan, I set out to tell our story. From 1993 to 1994 I interviewed people living in neighborhoods with community policing and then went on to speak with activists, lawyers, politicians, and police officials. The gulf between those in law enforcement and black residents seemed unbridgeable. One considered the system to be fair and the other knew better.
Angela Augustine-Daye, a black woman officer, straddled both worlds. We sat next to each other on her couch, and since she was young too it kind of felt as if we were friends. I didn’t know any police officers and I never imagined I could become friends with one, but everything I had heard about Augustine-Daye made me like her. She told me most white officers approached people like us in the same exact way. “They don’t care who you are, they don’t care where you’re from, what school you go to, and what you’ve done. You’re a criminal to them.”
At twenty-nine years old and with only two years on the force, she had violated what she called an “entrenched code of silence.” On a few occasions she had squared off with other officers to keep them from stomping on someone and once she had announced to those around her, “No beat down tonight!” Afterwards, some officers, white and black, stopped speaking to her.
But that didn’t stop her from intervening when she thought it was necessary. Three months before we met she had responded to a call and found a black man lying on the floor of a nightclub with his hands cuffed behind his back. Two white officers were kicking him. She yelled for them to back off but they didn’t until she shoved her body in between them and the man on the ground.
Another officer who’d been watching jumped in her face and screamed, “Get the fuck out of here! You again! Get the fuck out of here!” He pushed her.
Augustine-Daye was short and had a slender build but she didn’t fall or even stumble. She pushed him back.
A few officers grabbed her and took her outside before anything else happened.
Augustine-Daye told me the officer who had screamed at her lied and told their supervisor she jumped on his back and started punching him so hard that he could feel it through his protective vest. A local newspaper, that didn’t ask her for an interview, printed the same story.
After the incident, white officers watched what they did around her but she overheard them bragging about their deeds in the station. One officer said a guy gave him lip as he put him in the back of the police wagon, so as he drove to lockup he kept jamming on the breaks. He laughed while the man, with his hands cuffed behind his back, flew into the van’s walls and benches. Another officer boasted that every time he made a motor vehicle stop, he had to call for a 67. The code meant he needed a medical response.
Whenever Augustine-Daye got quiet and looked around her apartment, I followed her lead, casting my eyes along her low coffee table and the dull floor. I couldn’t tell if she felt like me—angry and sad—or if she was feeling something altogether different.
She said a lot of white officers wouldn’t provide backup for her when she worked her midnight shift. Walking her beat, she’d stroll up and down Dixwell Avenue, past run-down apartment buildings and dimly lit corner stores, while crank calls from other officers went off on her beeper. On some nights when she drove from one side street to another, she’d hear a tired voice come over the cruiser radio and tell her “Eat my gun.” In the early morning hours when she made it back to the station house, she’d file her paperwork and before leaving check her mailbox for more threatening letters.
One morning I spoke with Augustine-Daye’s boss the Chief of Police, Nicholas Pastore. The business of the department buzzed all around us. Telephones rang, file cabinet drawers opened and closed, and one person tapped on the keys of a typewriter. On one side of the huge office sat his desk and small tables covered with stacks of papers and on the other, where we sat, a coffee table and armchairs. The markers of Pastore’s success—degrees and awards—were carefully arranged on the walls. As a white man, more than double my age, sought out by the national press, I expected him to rush the interview. After all, I was a college student, writing a paper that only a select few people would read. But he didn’t rush me. He liked talking about his accomplishments.
A big part of changing the culture of the force, he explained, began with recruitment—attracting more applicants from the black community, especially more black women. He said the department’s efforts had gone “exceptionally well” and that black officers made up twenty-five percent of the force. I wasn’t convinced that numbers were enough to change the culture and not just because some black officers condoned violence while others were too afraid to speak out, but because an officer like Augustine-Daye was a minority, and like most people who find themselves outnumbered and vulnerable, she was a target.
According to Pastore the department had stopped accepting recruits who sought adventure, and instead hired people who saw the value in helping others. His goal was to have police become part of residents’ “extended family.” He explained that ninety percent of New Haven’s police work was done in African-American communities, mostly with poor people whose needs were not being met by city agencies. If the police could get to know people and their problems, he believed they could steer them to the right services.
Some officers publicly denounced his philosophy, claiming that he coddled criminals, expected them to act as social workers, and gave them little choice about how to do their jobs. When the chief moved twenty officers from desk to street duty, several of them quit. And in his first year as chief, the police union had called for his resignation.
Community policing had been the central program of the department for three years and many police officers and residents were critical of its results. I asked Pastore how he squared what he deemed the successes of the program—a better training model, a more respectful force, and a greater police presence—with the reality I’d witnessed in black neighborhoods.
“We know we have a problem,” he said. “Surely you didn’t come here to find out if we have a problem. How do we deal with it? We reconcile it by caring about each other.”
His answer was part of the myth that weakened the program itself: history has proven that black people were never afforded rights simply because their oppressors had experienced a change of heart, or were overcome by a sense of good will. In this way, relying on some superficial notion of caring ignored the harder reality of a difficult process, dodged the prerequisite of a reckoning, and simply rested on some vague romantic notion of change.
What’s more, his rhetoric made it seem as if residents and the police had equal work to do, as if we had been partners all along in the policing enterprise. But it wasn’t true. The dynamic between the police and black community had been built on three centuries of repression. Police power had always extended far beyond preventing crime and had been used to control social behavior and maintain the structures of a racist society.
Under the guise of community policing, Pastore asked his officers for so little—for instance, to say hello to residents and try to get to know people’s names. But we didn’t need perfunctory pleasantries, we needed to be protected from police violence. We needed the officers who attacked us to be punished. And we needed a law enforcement system that valued our dignity and our lives.
In New Haven and throughout the country community policing had become the answer to stemming police abuse and meeting the demands of black people for just treatment. In 1994, the Department of Justice established the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and gave $14 billion worth of grants to three hundred police departments in order to further community policing. There were no required mandates for the departments to adopt, and each one decided exactly how the program would operate. Some started nighttime basketball tournaments. Others purchased bicycles for patrols. But most of the money went toward hiring more officers. In troubled neighborhoods, like the one I lived in, crime was a result of joblessness, poor schools, and few opportunities. Yet in the name of progress, the NHPD and City Hall used federal funds to flood the neighborhood with more police and nothing else.
For many black residents in the city, the policy of community policing had failed. The leaders of the AAPC and the local NAACP received daily telephone calls from residents about police abuse. John Williams, of the law firm Williams and Wise, managed a regular caseload of excessive force cases that he took to the U.S. District Court. And there were no new procedures created by the department or the federal government to investigate complaints. On a few occasions, teenagers in the Dixwell Avenue neighborhood ran cops out of the area with bottles and bricks.
Community policing remained the defining program of the department until Pastore was forced to resign in 1997. It had been discovered that he had fathered a child with a twenty-four-year-old prostitute. I imagine that for some, his greatest offense hadn’t been that he had sullied the integrity of his office or that he’d cheated on his wife, but that the woman he slept with was black.
Over twenty years after the police officers visited my classroom, community policing made a comeback in New Haven. As I read about it in the newspaper I wondered what made anyone think it would work this time around. But maybe working was beside the point as long as the effort was commended and the liberal image of the city reaffirmed. After all, the mayor had served nine terms in office and there had been no serious effort to build mutual respect between police and black residents. So, why a return to community policing after so long?
City leaders declared it was the answer to the rising crime rate. The city had twelve murders in 2009 compared to twenty-three in 2010 and the uptick had become front-page news. There was the chance that the violence would not only harm poorer residents and their families but that it would drive away middle- and upper-class residents, businesses, and potential college students as it had done two decades ago. The mayor, John DeStefano, announced that the city would return to a law enforcement model that allowed the police and residents to work together to reduce crime and improve the quality of life in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Dean Esserman, who had left the police department over ten years ago, returned to become the chief. He had served as assistant police chief under Pastore and he called his version of community policing “a revitalization” of the 1990 program.
Under Esserman’s leadership, the NHPD once again garnered the reputation as one of the best community policing departments in the country. In explaining the New Haven model to police in other cities he proudly reported that the department was the only one in the country that required new officers to walk a beat in the same neighborhood for a year. He even boasted that he walked a beat every week himself. The Wall Street Journal article “Putting Police Officers Back On The Beat” provided anecdotes to back up the claim of a friendlier and more responsive department. It even included a photograph of a black store owner shaking hands with a white officer. And the city administration reported that since Esserman had become chief, crime in the city had gone down. The police and their supporters attributed the decline to community policing although they had no evidence.
The former attorney general of the United States appointed Esserman to the advisory board of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. And in 2015, the Department of Justice asked him to provide assistance and advice to police departments in St. Louis County. The county includes the city of Ferguson, where the black teenager Michael Brown was killed by the white police officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury did not indict Wilson, and the decision set off uprisings across the country and launched the national street protests of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the law enforcement practices in St. Louis County and uncovered rampant discrimination against black residents as part of routine police practices.
Shortly after Esserman was tapped to provide advice to departments in St. Louis, the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project released a report providing evidence that, in 2013 and 2014, the NHPD stopped black drivers 2.9 times more often than white drivers. The report noted that racial disparities increased significantly during the day, when the driver’s race was easier to detect. Black people were also more likely to be searched without their consent even though contraband was found on white drivers more often. Despite the report’s findings Esserman had stepped out on a national stage to help solve entrenched problems.
Even though I hadn’t lived in New Haven for close to twenty years, the story about community policing seemed incomplete. After some digging I accepted that Esserman did not lead exactly like Pastore and that the department did not operate just as it did over two decades ago. After all, the Beat Down Posse had disbanded, and while civil rights lawyers and organizations still received calls about police abuse, the number of complaints had decreased. But this measure of progress was a pitiful one, and told little about the dynamics between the police and black residents.
I started to talk to people in New Haven who had been there during the first iteration of community policing and who had witnessed its revival. It seemed that the shortfalls, a generation later, had remained the same. Many officers did not embrace the philosophy of mutual respect, and their hostility toward black residents felt ever-present, too many instances of mistreatment went unpunished in the department and in the courts, and partnering to resolve problems was impossible since the police held firmly onto their power and the community members their mistrust.
There hadn’t been any recent deaths by the hands of police in New Haven but that didn’t mean people felt safe. More and more residents were recording arrests.
Valerie Boyd told me she hated that most local newspapers discounted the video recording of her daughter’s arrest. Instead they recounted the police department’s version of events—Anna resisted arrest and when officer Smereczynsky saw a knife in her pocketbook he took her down.
I looked closely at the news coverage. The Yale Daily News article “Up Close: Policing New Haven After Ferguson” states, “In a video of the arrest, which occurred during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Smereczynsky can be seen finding a knife in [Anna’s] purse after slamming her to the ground.” There was only one video of the arrest, the one posted on YouTube. In it, Anna’s purse was closed. Smereczynsky didn’t look in it.
The News Channel 8 article “New Haven Police Say Teen in Controversial Video was Armed” quotes Lou Cavaliere, President of the New Haven Police Union, as saying, “Cops responded there [Buffalo Wild Wings] to a violent riot-type scene.” He said there was pepper spray and a knife involved.
An account from others who were in the restaurant including the manager told a different story. One in which no one wielded mace or a knife, no property was damaged, and no one had been injured before the police arrived.
When Boyd picked Anna up at the police station they headed straight to the hospital emergency room. Anna’s face was bruised and swollen, she had a large cut on her right temple, and her shoulder was fractured.
Out of Boyd’s four children, two adults and two teenagers, Anna had always been the one who needed her the most. Boyd laughed when she explained that Anna’s twin sister was the “feisty” one—outspoken and fearless. Anna tried hard to do the right thing, volunteering to carry snacks for her school’s basketball team, babysitting their neighbors’ kids, and baking chocolate chip cookies and vanilla cupcakes for her family to sample. As a mother, Boyd had been grateful that her daughter behaved like most of the teenagers around her. On the weekends, Anna headed out of the house to meet her friends. They’d go to the mall and get their eyebrows shaped up and stars and half-moons painted on their fingernails. But after her arrest Anna couldn’t bear to catch the city bus anywhere or even make weekend plans.
Usually Boyd sounded full of sorrow when she described how her daughter’s life had changed. She thought once Anna’s shoulder healed, she’d get back to her basketball practices with Team Connecticut. At first, Anna had wanted to play tennis. So many people told her she looked like Serena Williams that she dreamed of following in the superstar’s footsteps. Boyd looked into getting her lessons but they were too expensive, so she suggested basketball instead. Something about being on the court with all those other players made Anna nervous, so her mother hired a private coach. After a few months of practice Anna felt ready for the open court and she couldn’t wait to join the team. But not even basketball excited her anymore.
When Boyd described how her daughter avoided her friends and how her spirits were often down despite her therapy and medication for depression she became angry. Her voice got louder and she repeated the question, “Why is the victim blamed?”
Even with her outrage, she appreciated that the Chief of Police visited her and her daughter a few days after the St. Patrick Day Parade. Esserman had already said publicly to others working in law enforcement, “The only way you get past that barrier of a uniform or skin color is through relationships.”
In a video of their conversation, which took place in a living room stuffed with two leather couches and an oval coffee table, Esserman did most of the talking. He told Anna in a soothing voice that he was her police chief and a parent and that he was sorry she was hurt. More than once he told her, “The New Haven Police Department cares about you.” Boyd seemed at ease; her uncle had been an officer in the NHPD, her mother had worked in the department’s office, and a lot of her friends were on the force. But even with the family ties, Anna didn’t seem comfortable at all. She didn’t say anything and when the chief tried to elicit a response from her she barely nodded her head. Her mother told me that she was shy, but that wasn’t what I saw. It looked like she kept her distance and guarded herself in every way possible because she was afraid. Esserman assured her, “If we did something wrong, we’re going to sort this out.”
The newspapers commended Esserman for visiting Anna, although the gesture, like so much of community policing, required little effort and came with no commitment for change. However, not everyone praised the chief.
A local black activist, Barbara Fair, led a few dozen people in chants outside the police station. Some faced the department’s low concrete building and others the busy street that ran alongside the train station. A reporter showed up and asked Fair, who has been speaking out against injustices in the city for years, about her response to the arrest video. “I’m beyond upset.” And she made it clear she had no faith in internal affairs to investigate the matter fairly.
When I spoke with Fair she told me she started working for police and prison reform because of the harm done to her family. Her nephew was strip-searched in public by the police and on her son’s seventeenth birthday he was locked away in solitary confinement. She gathered her energy from their painful experiences and fought against a broad range of abuses.
In the news interview outside the police station, Fair looked unassuming in her thin metal glasses and black pea coat. She was older than mostly everyone around her and the respect they gave her she’d earned. As the reporter closed down the segment Fair turned toward the door of the police station and shouted to the crowd—“Let’s go.”
Inside the station house, the protestors demand that Smereczynsky be taken off his patrol shift while internal affairs investigated the charge of excessive force.
Their demand was met. At the request of the city’s black mayor, Toni Harp, Esserman assigned Smereczynsky to desk duty.
Police officers protested the decision at City Hall. Calling on Esserman to back his officers and Mayor Harp to stop pandering to special interest groups, they carried neatly made blue and white signs that declared I SUPPORT THE POLICE. One wore a T-shirt saying I Am Joshua Smereczynsky. New Haven residents who supported the decision were at City Hall too. Protestors essentially divided by race—white police on one side and black residents on the other—faced each other on the steps outside City Hall and shouted their respective slogans. The police union president Cavaliere and Fair stood inches apart yelling back and forth at each other over the noise. Reporters shoved their microphones in between them.
Before the protest, Fair had made the sign—COMMUNITY POLICING—HOW’S THAT WORKING?
One of the changes Esserman made in the spirit of partnering with the community was to open up the department’s weekly CompStat meetings to the public. At the meetings, a group of officers looked at crime patterns in the city and strategized about how to interrupt them. Sometimes law enforcement representatives from local colleges, social service agencies, or people from community outreach groups came to the meetings to get information and offer advice.
The week after the protest at City Hall, Fair attended CompStat. Sitting in the front row, she looked over her glasses, picking out the officers who were at the protest. Even though she felt worn out from all her years fighting no one could tell because as soon as she got a chance, she lodged her complaint. She repeated the insults hurled at black protestors by the police exactly the way she heard them, loud and clear: “Trash!” “Ghetto!” “Get a job!”
A few officers responded before she’d finished and she couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. They talked over her. She talked over them. When the room quieted down some officers denied the charges, saying they didn’t make the comments, so it must have been other people. One officer came back at Fair that protestors were calling the police names too.
She asked, “How can you protect us if you hold such despairing views of us?” In one way or another, for at least two decades, she’d been demanding an answer to that question.
When she arrived at the CompStat meeting the next week Esserman met her at the door. He told her that her comments at the previous meeting had been disruptive. He insisted she leave and informed her she would be barred from all future meetings.
The next week she showed up again, this time with Connecticut State Senator Gary Winfield. He lived in a predominately black community in New Haven and had witnessed police officers antagonizing and disrespecting his neighbors. Hoping his position would open the door for Fair, he asked for Esserman himself. They waited. Messages were sent into and out of the meeting, and in the end neither one of them were allowed inside.
Later, Winfield told me that Fair was a strong advocate for the black community and barring her meant that their voices would not be heard.
At the national conference Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety, Chief Esserman outlined what he considered the glory days of policing, when those watching over the city were “actually community members.” He discussed the night watch, the protective services that existed before the police. Invoking their tools—bells, lanterns, and staffs—he explained that they served as caretakers of the people around them. He advocated for a return to this type of policing. The speech, well told, blended the past and present beautifully but Esserman’s view of “community members” proved limited.
A longstanding tradition of abusing black people stretched from the slave patrollers to the night watch to the police. The night watch, comprised of only white men, were charged with protecting landowners and ensuring that black people abided by curfews and travel restrictions. Once the NHPD was formed they disproportionately arrested black people for offenses like drunkenness, breach of peace, indecency, vagrancy, and lascivious carriage (a charge used to curb dating across racial lines). They shot and killed unarmed black men who had been arrested for such offenses as “intoxication” and “playing craps.” Police aggressively patrolled black neighborhoods, contained uprisings to poor areas, illegally wiretapped the phones of black freedom fighters, and formed the Beat Down Posse. For four centuries the police had done the bidding of the rest of society by upholding a racist system—and if Esserman would not even acknowledge this, how could he form a partnership with Fair or the people she represented?
Three days after officer Smereczynsky had been put on desk duty, internal affairs cleared him of any wrongdoing. At a press conference Esserman defended the decision and explained the officer had been concerned for his safety. He didn’t go on to explain how a fifteen-year-old girl in handcuffs posed a threat. But in their version of events, even with her mouth closed and her torso pinned up against an SUV, Anna hadn’t been submissive enough.
Smereczynsky’s problems were not over, though. Boyd filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of her daughter against him and Esserman. Fair, who had never been let back into CompStat, sued the chief for violation of her first amendment rights. Esserman and the city were also being sued by the department’s first black female police captain. Her claim detailed years of racial and gender discrimination, intimidation, and harassment. Other black people, who were not officers, have sued the police department and won. But even with the wrongdoing acknowledged and damages paid, the system that landed the parties in court remained the same.
The police chief and his officers, Anna and her family, Fair and other protestors, stood in an uncertain aftermath. In court the different sides, the aggrieved and the accused, would be segregated, like the city, by skin color, economic standing, and political clout. And even though matters of justice could be plotted on a timeline, the more subtle work of a truce, reconciliation, compromise, and recovery would take its own course.
In the wake of Anna’s arrest and the protests, Mayor Harp launched the Community and Police Relations Task Force. She charged the members with improving the city’s community policing model. The seventeen-member force included police officers, clergy, and residents like Ann Boyd, Anna’s grandmother, as well as Barbara Fair. In her public statements, Harp called the residents on the task force “peace advocates” and made it clear that she wanted to avoid riots like the ones in Ferguson and Baltimore. Some people in the city dismissed the task force as a ploy by the mayor to quiet protestors or a public relations move to help her get re-elected. Regardless of her intentions, in the end it would rest with Chief Esserman to accept the task force recommendations or not.
Fair talked with me about the work of the task force as if it has been doomed from the start. Barely any residents came to their first community hearing, and she had an idea why. There were two chairs of the task force, one black and one white. The white co-chair, Eli Greer said to a newspaper reporter that in regards to the public hearing, the residents needed to “leave their emotional baggage at the door.” The committee wanted constructive ideas, he explained, and not the rehashing of personal experiences. Fair said to me—“What is the hearing for if you don’t want to hear our stories?”
After sixteen months of sporadic meetings, in July of 2016 the task force released an eighteen-page report. Their recommendations called for an explicit policy on the use of force against children, an external body to review complaints, and an end to the documented racial profiling in the city. The department had lost two lawsuits brought by residents who were arrested for videotaping the police and it was advised that officers receive training concerning a resident’s right to record an arrest.
The report addressed community policing, the program that had brought the department national esteem and federal funding. The task force concluded that police officers and residents in New Haven did not have an understanding of the goals and requirements of community policing. They recommended the City formulate a definition and quality indicators with the aid of community members input and that the progress of the program undergo regular assessment.
Before Chief Esserman could respond to the recommendations he was forced to resign by Mayor Harp. He had verbally abused people working in New Haven on two separate occasions, received a no-confidence vote by the vast majority of the officers in the police department, and a symbolic no-confidence vote by a group of black community members.
But it wasn’t just the police chief or one officer that failed Anna and so many like her, it was also the policy of community policing. In New Haven community policing did not build trust, protect residents, or hold officers accountable. However, it did divert attention and resources away from new and more radical solutions. The abuse black people face at the hands of the police is a human and civil rights crisis inseparable from the miseries of racism, poverty, political powerlessness, and social stigma. And police reform has to match the scope and depth of the problem.
When I spoke with former police officer Angela Daye, she had recently retired after twenty-one years on the force. She explained that community policing never changed the culture of the NHPD. She knew officers who regularly violated people’s civil rights and others who turned a blind eye. Often, she regretted that she served, because to her, the policing system endangered the city’s most vulnerable residents.
After her arrest Anna couldn’t stand to be alone, so her mother took a job with fewer hours. Boyd told me she also wanted to spend more time with her daughter, who was sweet, and still naïve. God was their shield, Boyd believed, and she prayed that her daughter wouldn’t live the rest of her life in fear. But that wasn’t her only worry, especially after Anna asked her—“Who will be sad if I die?”
At a writing conference I listen to Claudia Rankine speak about her most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric. It exposes all types of assaults launched at the black body. It regards the many ways we are deemed suspect, deviant, foreign, inhuman, or not considered at all. It brings together the experiences of Trayvon Martin, the Jena Six, James Craig Anderson, and nameless others whom I’ve never known but feel connected to nevertheless. After the talk is over I get up to leave. When my friend asks if I want to talk to Rankine I tell her no. I don’t think I can share my thoughts about Citizen and keep my composure. My friend encourages me by pushing me through the crowd and to the front of the room. When I stand across from Rankine, she starts talking to me as if we are in the middle of a conversation instead of meeting for the first time. Shaking her head side to side, she says it’s incredible what we have to endure.
To suffer without yielding. To remain against the odds. I think of it as a collective act—a powerful antidote to abuse, a decisive counterpoint to cruelty. But I wonder if endurance has an endpoint, a capacity that isn’t infinite.
Even though Rankine doesn’t say anything else to me I start to cry. She does the most loving thing she can at that moment. She takes my hand and holds it.