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Police-Community Relations At Center Of Mission For New Task Force

Vanessa de la Torre
Connecticut Public Radio
Kendra Demudd, 18, at left, protests in honor of her cousin Anthony Jose Vega Cruz. Vega Cruz, known as "Chulo" was fatally shot by a Wethersfield police officer. File photo: April 26, 2019.

Daryl McGraw says he remembers when he was choked and tased by a police officer. He also remembers the years of his life that he was addicted to drugs -- and the 10 years he spent in and out of prison for drug-related offenses. Now he’s the co-chair of the state’s Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force.

The committee was created during the last legislative session with the passage ofPublic Act 19-90 in July 2019, An Act Concerning the Use of Force and Pursuits by Police and Increasing Police Accountability and Transparency.

That law came on the heels ofthe fatal shooting of 18-year-old Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, one of four people fatally shot by police in Connecticut in 2019. A month before Vega Cruz was killed, 22-year-old Stephanie Washington survived a police shooting in New Haven. In the first month of 2020, there werethree fatal police shootings.

The task force is charged with examining three major areas: police officer interactions with people who have a mental, intellectual or physical disability; a potential new procedure for traffic stops that would require officers to issue a receipt detailing the reason for the stop and record the demographic information of the person being stopped; and any other police officer and transparency and accountability issue the task force deems appropriate. 

The committee must produce a final report by the end of the year. Originally, a preliminary report was supposed to have been filed by Jan. 1, but appointments to the committee weren’t finalized until December.

McGraw, who's a senior re-entry policy specialist for Central Connecticut State University's Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, is eager to get to work.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have this opportunity,” McGraw said. “I want us to go into the community, see what the people are saying and what they would like to see better with police relationships.” He said he’s also heard from police officers who say “situations can go bad really quickly.”

“How do we help in that situation? How do we make sure the officer goes home and the person gets the treatment that they need -- how do we make that work in our state?”

When McGraw was sent to prison last in 2007, he said he was choked by a police officer during a traffic stop then tased multiple times outside his home by the same officer, who, he said, remains on the force. McGraw never filed a complaint.

Upon his release in 2010, after serving a three-year sentence, the Stamford native put the five-year plan he crafted while in prison into action, which included becoming a drug counselor. That year, he began working as a recovery support specialist. 

Since then, McGraw has worked within Yale University’s School of Medicine, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction and the Hartford Police Department. He now works part time as a policy and research analyst with The Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy and runs his criminal justice consulting business, Formerly Inc.

McGraw said he wants to address reoccurring issues of fatal use of force, racial profiling, and rebuilding trust between police and vulnerable communities. He pointed out what he sees as a discrepancy between Connecticut being touted as a “leader in criminal justice” and the reality of negative experiences with police than many people of color and others have across the state.

“When Black and brown people, or people with mental health challenges or physical disabilities interact with people, a lot of times those situations don’t end well,” McGraw said. “So my goal is to hopefully be able to prevent some of that stuff from happening by working with this task force, and hopefully we can shed some light on figuring out whether it’s training issues, do we need community oversight … I’m hoping we can all come together making Connecticut a safer place for everyone to live.”

The 13-member task force includes Chief Hans Rhynhart (UConn), Shafiq Abdussabur, Rep. Joshua Hall (D-Hartford), Ken Barone, Chief Thomas Kulhawik (Norwalk), Chief Keith Mello (Milford), Sgt. John Szewczyk (Hartford), Chief William Wright (Wallingford), and Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella. 

It’s not known if John Russotto, the former interim chief state’s attorney, will be replaced by Richard Colangelo Jr., the newly appointed chief state’s attorney. Three vacancies remain for a second co-chair, a member who has a mental, intellectual or physical disability, and a general seat.

During an hourlong meeting, Abdussabur, a retired New Haven Police sergeant, expressed concerns about the need to better train officers in the areas of crisis intervention, de-escalation, and interacting with different racial, ethnic and religious communities.

“We need to create a policy statewide so that our residents in the state of Connecticut can have some rightful expectation of what use of force looks like, no matter what town you go to,” Abdussabur said.

The Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE) offers free crisis intervention training to police departments, while the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) offers crisis intervention accreditation that costs around $11,000, according to members of the task force.

While CABLE may seem more cost-effective upfront, Abdussabur suggested that CALEA training could decrease costs associated with multimillion-dollar wrongful death lawsuits. According toCALEA’s 2018 report, 20 Connecticut law enforcement agencies are accredited;CABLE reported 39 crisis intervention-certified agencies for that same year. The state has not studied, however, if training through CABLE or CALEA results in a decrease of a department’s use of fatal or nonfatal force.

Beyond use of force, Abdussabur suggested creating a statewide pursuit policy and a “universal system” for filing police complaints. He also spoke about the need to reexamine expectations for police.

“We need to define the mission statement for police officers. The ‘protect and serve, pride and progress’ -- that’s not cutting it,” Abdussabur said. “We say these things and then we stick the officer out there and they’re a babysitter, they’re a social worker, we want them to be a psychologist -- we need to be very specific in the state of Connecticut to let people know this is the threshold of what an officer can do.”

The committee will meet again in February and plans to open some meetings to the public.

“I don’t want to work on the low-hanging fruit, the ‘feel good stuff,’” McGraw said. “It’s a tall order, but I think that we’re up for the task.”

Ryan Lindsay has been asking questions since she figured how to say her first few words. She eventually figured out that journalism is the profession where you can and should always ask questions.

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