Updated 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29, with editor’s note and link at end.
NORWALK, Conn. – Fears for Norwalk youth – accentuated by the violence in Ferguson, Mo. – led Thursday to lessons in de-escalating police situations and talk of different, more positive, ways to teach children.
“The issue was ‘how can we make sure something like this doesn’t happen in Norwalk?” said Norwalk Branch NAACP treasurer Brenda Tyson, after the town hall event featuring a discussion with Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik and other leaders in City Hall. “We said, ‘OK, this is time we can come together, and put our heads together.’”
Tyson said the NAACP “threw this together” last Friday. There were about 50 people gathered in the Common Council chambers, which was surprising and gratifying, she said.
Norwalk Branch NAACP President Darnell Crosland led the town hall, sharing a few stories of problematic experiences with Norwalk Police.
Crosland said he was pulled over as he pulled into a Shell gas station last fall and there were “canine units and stuff all over the place.” A problem with his car insurance was quickly resolved, but the officer had spotted his gun permit in his wallet and asked him if he had a firearm with him. He refused to pull it out and give to the officer.
“The last thing I want to do is introduce a weapon into a police stop,” Crosland said. “… I didn’t want to pick it up and give it to him because then, you know, it’s a black man with weapon, and then the Shell gas station camera is going to capture me pulling my weapon out. But they don’t get audio, they don’t get the part where they said, ‘Hand it to me.’”
It was a judgment call, he said.
“But this is my point,” Crosland said. “The officer came back later, he was upset with me, not because of the weapon, not because I didn’t turn. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were a lawyer?’ I said, ‘How did you know I was a lawyer?’ He said, ‘Well, several officers have called me on my cell phone and said, that’s Crosland.’ So, I didn’t really think I had to tell him I was a lawyer to be treated appropriately. But he had a lot of bravado going on and he was yelling at me because I didn’t tell him I was a lawyer. But if that’s the most, they’re going to yell at me that night, I can accept that.”
There need to be discussions about bravado and intimidation, he said. Back in the day, Norwalk Police were friendlier, he said.
Kulhawik said there would be informational seminars down the road. Some people think it’s their right to struggle when a police officer attempts to arrest them because they feel they did nothing wrong, he said.
“You have no right to resist arrest,” Kulhawik said. “Whether the police are right or wrong, the law is you have to go along with the arrest and then complain about it later. Let the courts work. Complain to me and then we’ll follow it up. But if you struggle and fight, the police are going to make that arrest, they are going to raise that level of force. The law allows them to take the force to a level higher than what is being encountered by them.”
Get the officer’s name, he said.
“If they are a hothead my advice is you don’t fight, you cooperate,” Kulhawik said. “If the officer is already at that level that you feel is inappropriate the situation will quickly get out of control. That’s not right or wrong, it’s just a fact … They may be (wrong) but the bottom line is you don’t want to escalate it because it’s just going to get worse. In the end the officer is going to win. That is what they are trained to do. They are going to make the arrest.”
It was suggested that Mike Brown, the 18-year-old man who was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer, had his hands up and was de-escalating the situation.
Kulhawik said he didn’t know what happened there, but if the officer was wrong he should be arrested.
“You can’t de-escalate a homicide,” Crosland said.
He’s been getting complaints from the community, Crosland said. “It is kind of intimidating. Some of the cops are young, they are coming on with a lot of bravado,” he said.
But there was much positive talk. Police officers are human beings who might be having a bad day, it was said. State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) said “the complainers are out there” but 60 percent of the community wants to do something positive.
“It’s a matter of having the political will to say that taxpayers in the city of Norwalk, ‘we’ve got some great things going on but race does matter,’” Morris said. “… In order to go to the next level as a city, maybe the conversation isn’t around reexamining the problems so much but examining what are the solutions that we know exist? And how do we collectively come together with some comprehensive planning and get some of these things going and empower these youth who we know can be the best messengers for getting these things done?”
Crosland said people are afraid to bring it up.
“I am concerned that we are going to get the feedback, ‘here we go again, here is the black conversation’ or ‘here is the Hispanic conversation,’” Crosland said.
“Statistics show people of color are looked at differently,” Morris said. “We have been stopped in inaction for so long that there are people who want to do the positive things, OK? Who want to say, ‘Listen, I am not in denial.’ There are police officers who are going to say, ‘I know my brother or sister in blue is not doing the proper thing.’”
Morris, the Norwalk Public Schools Human Relations Officer, said black male children are suspended from school at a higher rate than whites but Connecticut is doing something about it. Educators are switching from the “Gotcha Game” to role modeling good behaviors.
The suspensions at West Rocks Middle School and Ponus Ridge Middle School had been at 600 to 800 a year but are now down to 100, he said. “The numbers were cut in half, by 50 percent, year after year after year,” he said.
“As a community, black kids don’t have somebody patting them on the back and telling them you’ve gone and done something well,” he said.
Mayor Harry Rilling said people from different backgrounds see things differently. There’s been a pattern in Norwalk of discussions that make everyone involved feel better, then the ball gets dropped, he said.
“There’s a huge disconnect between people of color and people who are not of color, Caucasians and whatever, but we need to not walk away from this and say, ‘OK, we’ve done our duty and that’s it.’ I said that before, I’ll say it again. If we don’t follow up on this then shame on us,” Rilling said.
A member of the audience spoke up toward the end of the two-hour meeting to offer an idea that Bryson later seized upon.
Sally Grose, a retired school teacher, said she had been instructing children about the Middle Passage years ago when she decided to try to mimic the experience for them, to try to illustrate the suffering of Africans who had been kidnapped and were on their way to America to become slaves.
She locked them in closets and tied them to chairs in “a very crude representation,” which they never forgot, she said.
Later, the faculty took a group approach to teaching the kids about the Holocaust, she said.
“We decided that on the first day we announced that certain people with certain names were not going to get higher than a C. The kids said, ‘That’s not fair.’ It wasn’t but we were making a point. Those kids never forgot it,” she said. “What I am saying is, I would love to participate in a program where we try to stand in each other’s shoes. When I hear what people who look like me say, ‘We don’t have a race problem in this country,’ I know there is something wrong.”
“It’s times like this that creativity comes out,” Bryson said. “It’s times like this that brings new suggestions and new ideas out. That’s why we’re going to have this meeting and that’s why we’re going to have more.”
“We came out to honor and respect the folks in Ferguson,” Bryson said. “We wanted to be proactive and we were. We came up with some really good stuff. The dialogue was open. My next thing, I’d really like to see the youth here. These things really should be filled with the youth.”
“I definitely think this is helpful,” said Krystle Moore, after the meeting.
She came because she had learned over social media about what was going on in Ferguson, about rubber bullets and tear gas. “It sounds like Third World country-ish and I just wanted to make sure that my community doesn’t turn into that,” she said.
Her 7-year-old son had a “horrible” experience in kindergarten, she said, but did not elaborate.
“I would think it great to have workshops for public servants like police officers and teachers, those two entities engage with black people a lot, and helping to decriminalize Norwalk kid behavior, especially young males because I think a lot of the issue is perception. … My big fear my child, not out of ill intentions, maybe some little misconceptions in the back of the brain, like black boys are more geared toward aggression when it’s really kind of normal behavior. I would like to see workshops geared toward decriminalizing normal behavior of black males.”
“This meeting was necessary because we do need to talk,” Mary Israel said. “Because you may think things like that would never happen in your town but then it happens. What do you do? I mean, the youth, they matter because they’re the future.”
Editor’s note: While researching some statistics on the topic, I came across this article, which we would like to share with our readers.