NORWALK, Conn. — From Norwalk police department policies to racial issues in the school system, from housing policies to more community conversations. These were just a few of the issues discussed at Mayor Harry Rilling’s Community Town Hall on Wednesday night, which featured local and state elected officials, as well as police and faith leaders. Officials said that over 200 people joined in for at least part of the event.
“This is not a feel-good town hall meeting where we sit down, we have a discussion, we feel we’ve done our job and we walk away and nothing else happens,” Riling said.
During his time as both police and mayor, Rilling said he’s been “just as guilty as everyone else” of making commitments and promises and then moving on.
“This is no longer going to be accepted, nor should it be,” he said. “This meeting is an opportunity, an opportunity for us to have the discussions we need to have, to let our feelings be known, to speak from the heart, to make any statement we feel we need to make and to make a commitment, a commitment that we vow to keep that we will not have this as business as usual.”
Common Council member Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said that the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police reminded him of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. She wasn’t the first African American to refuse to give up her seat, Burnett said, just like Floyd wasn’t the first African American to be killed by a police officer, but they both sparked outrage and action.
“These events have motivated several people, especially black people, to act because we are tired, frustrated and fear for our lives,” Burnett said.
Council member Kadeem Roberts (D-District A) said that he’s concerned by what happened to Floyd and so many others in the African American community.
“I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m concerned for the safety of the community, the African American community…it hurts my soul to hear my mother worry every time I leave the house.”
Ideas for Action
The Rev. Richard Clarke, D.Min., pastor of Norwalk’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, recommended that the city put together a community-based commission to have hearings where they could listen to complaints from the public about discrimination issues they’ve faced in dealing with city agencies or services.
“This type of proactive measure might solve our issues (and) concerns, before reaching a boiling point,” he said.
Clarke also advocated for a platform where youth could connect with a police department representative. This could allow them to “air their concerns before they get into trouble and prevent them from getting into trouble,” he said. Clarke also drew attention to the development taking place in Norwalk and said that there were concerns from the minority community about affordable housing and their quality of life.
“The other piece that we have to take into consideration for the good of all people is that we’re hearing the words of our people and (we’re) being concerned about affordable housing,” he said. “It is a serious concern within the African American community—(it’s) not affordable for our people. There are a couple of African Americans in Norwalk that are somehow compelled to leave the city. These are some things we must look into.”
Rilling said that hiring Lamond Daniels as his chief of community services has helped the City connect with local nonprofits to see what programs already exist, particularly to help minority communities work with youth, provide mental health care and other types of social services, as well as learn what ones are still needed.
“While we have not decreased our police budget, we have increased our investment in the community services and social services area,” Riling said.
Policing in Norwalk
Many of the questions and conversation topics centered around policing in Norwalk. Chief Tom Kuhalwik said that while the city’s department isn’t perfect, they are already doing some things that activists and protestors are calling for.
For example, Kulhawik said that he was sent information about “8 Can’t Wait,” a newly unveiled project from Campaign Zero, a group which advocated for police reform.
“8 Can’t Wait” lists eight different policies that police department can put into action to “decrease police violence”—ban chokeholds and strangleholds, require de-escalation, require an officer to warn before shooting, exhaust all other means before shooting, duty for other officers to intervene if an officer is using excessive force, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require use of force continuum, and require comprehensive reporting for use of force.
“All eight of those things we’re already doing in Norwalk and have been doing for years,” Kulhawik said.
He added that they were updating their use of force policy to explicitly ban what the officer used on Floyd.
“Although our policy bans chokeholds, and has for some time now—yes it covers it, I didn’t feel like it covered it to the point that I felt comfortable with,” he said.
Kulhawik also stated that the City’s body cam program is “one of the greatest things we have.”
The cameras allow him and other supervisors to review footage related to complaints, as well as use of force, and if they are not properly activated before the officer engages with a member of the community, such as at a traffic stop, officers can face disciplinary consequences, he said.
The department is also in the midst of finishing its upgrade of its early warning system, which would help administration potentially detect issues with an officer, before things are escalated too far, he said. The program tracks incidents, such as use of force, car accidents, and multiple sudden time-off requests, against parameters set by the department that could indicate there’s an issue.
“It will automatically alert us if we need to intervene with an officer, just to kind of make sure they’re doing OK, and we can avoid any issues,” he said.
An audience member raised the question that the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with the murder of Floyd, had accumulated at least 17 complaints on his record.
“That would have been a huge red flag in the City of Norwalk with the early warning system and would have sent the Chief and department into action,” Rilling said.
Still, officials like Brenda Penn Williams, the head of the local NAACP, said there was more Norwalk could do, including hiring more minority officers. Kulhawik didn’t disclose numbers but said they try to “maintain a police force that mirrors our community.”
“I think what we need—we need more black teachers,” she said. “We need more Hispanic teachers. We need more black police officers, we need more black firemen.”
She added that Norwalk needed to “make the government look more like the community.”
Roberts said he wanted to make sure police officers were trained “to be members of the community.”
“Police should be trained on how to develop better relationships with the community,” he said.
Board of Education member Godfrey Azima said that he would like to see the police department work with the school system so the officers could be trained in “restorative work.”
Azima said that many students of color face trauma that impact their lives and the school system is working on implementing policies to work with them and help them. He said he’s “extremely aware of the challenge officers have with being called to a school scene,” and wanted them to be prepared.
“I really think it’s important we look to adopt strategies that are very preventative in nature,” he said.
The other big area officials addressed was the inequities in the school system—locally, statewide, and nationally. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn), had tweeted earlier in the evening: “It’s time for Connecticut to desegregate our schools,” and he was asked about it on the call.
“Norwalk is a diverse community, it’s the exception rather than the norm in Connecticut,” he said. “We’re one of the most segregated states in the nation. I don’t know if you can solve any of this if we continue to have separate experiences. We have to really do some work at the state level and federal level, do some work on where we live, where we go to school.”
Penn-Williams said that “racism in Norwalk is systemic,” particularly in the schools.
“They’re not treated with respect in these schools,” she said, stating that people have a notion or assumption of what a child is going to be based on where they live. “It starts out when these kids go to school—we have to change that culture, we really do.”
She also called out Superintendent Steven Adamowski for not putting out a statement condemning what happened to Floyd.
“Superintendents across the country have spoken out to support the minorities in (their) district,” she said.
Penn-Williams cited issues with the administration removing African American administrators, as well as calling out Board of Education member Mike Barbis for comments he previously made.
“We’re going to have to really work to get people who get people who appear racist, we’re going to have to get them out of our system,” she said.
State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), said that “so much of this comes down to housing policy.”
“We have a segregated housing policy in Connecticut…many of the communities in circles around the urban areas do not provide a lot of affordable housing,” he said.
Clarke and Penn-Williams also called for curriculum in the schools to be more inclusive, such as teaching African American and other minority histories to better educate students.
Roberts said that the first step is for dialogue to continue.
“We need more of these Mr. Mayor—these are actually very beneficial to the community. We need to make sure we’re putting it out into the community,” he said adding that they should send mailers and other forms of communications to those who don’t have internet access.”
Rilling said he wanted to put together a group to look at the recommendations from his previous “blue ribbon” commission on race and see what had been implemented, what hadn’t, and what needed to be updated.