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Police shooting near Yale exposes complex racial divide

"We send spaceships to other planets, but we can't build a bridge between the community and the police," a New Haven resident said.

HAMDEN, Conn. — The images from the police bodycam video of two officers firing at an unarmed black couple in their car have reverberated throughout New Haven, Connecticut, where the shooting occurred last week, and across the suburban towns that circle the campus of Yale.

For black residents in particular, the shooting has stirred up a deeper discontent that intersects long-simmering complaints over police interactions, racial tension and a resentment from some community members who take issue with the Ivy League school's "elite insularity," which they say cuts it off from surrounding minority and lower-income neighborhoods.

"We send spaceships to other planets, but we can't build a bridge between the community and the police," said Rodney Williams, a New Haven resident and the uncle of Paul Witherspoon III, the driver of the car in the April 16 shooting.

The police officers who fired at Witherspoon, 21, and his passenger, Stephanie Washington, 22, were identified as Terrance Pollock, a 16-year veteran of the Yale police force, and Devin Eaton, a police officer in Hamden, which borders New Haven to the north. Pollock and Eaton are black.

For Williams and others, the race of the officers is of lesser importance to the larger concern over policing in New Haven and surrounding communities where residents say racial profiling remains a problem.

A 2017 analysis by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University examined data from about 560,000 traffic stops from across the state and found that there was an unusually high rate of black and Hispanic drivers being pulled over.

In a previous analysis, Hamden was identified as an outlier town in which minority drivers had their cars searched at substantially higher rates and researchers found significant racial disparities.

"I don't think a lot of white people even realize what it feels like to drive through a white community being black," Williams told members of the Hamden Legislative Council during a community listening forum on Monday night. Behind him, a group of older black men nodded in agreement.

The Associated Press reported in 2017 that the town's former police chief, Thomas Wydra, had told his officers in informal conversations to cut down on defective equipment stops because data showed black drivers were more likely than whites to be pulled over for those violations.

Hamden police didn't respond to a request for comment.

Rhonda Caldwell, an organizer with the Hamden parents group Anti-Bias Anti-Racism, said there remains "two different realities" for residents of her town of 60,900, which according to census data is nearly 70 percent white and 20 percent black and where the median household income is $66,695.

"What happened to Paul and Stephanie could have happened to me, my child or any other black person in this room today," she said at the forum, adding that the redlining of neighborhoods — in which federal agencies in the 1930s allowed for discriminatory lending practices that disenfranchised black home buyers — created the segregation and racially divisive attitudes prevalent in New Haven and its majority white suburbs.

A public housing project in New Haven, a city of about 130,000 residents, gained national attention in 2014, when The New York Times reported on the tearing down of a 12-foot-tall chain link fence that was used to delineate the neighborhood from the border of Hamden.

Residents considered the fencing surrounding the housing project, which is predominantly black, as a symbol of the larger inequalities between Hamden and New Haven. That area of New Haven had been plagued by crime, drugs and poverty. According to The Times, Hamden's median income was more than four times higher than the average income in New Haven's housing projects.

New Haven, where about one in four residents live in poverty, and the portion of Hamden that borders the city represent a microcosm of the housing policies and income inequality that persist today throughout the United States, said David Canton, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.

Canton, who moved to Hamden from another part of the state more than 10 years ago, said there's a noticeable disconnect between Yale and the working-class neighborhoods of New Haven, where the unemployment rate lags slightly behind the state's.

"I call it Yale Haven," Canton said. "Yale and these other Ivy League schools are in a land grab race, competing for endowment funds and land. They want to buy up properties to build expensive apartments, luxury living with the gyms and coffee houses and yoga studios. They're arguing that they're scaling up neighborhoods and gentrifying, but the reality is it's only for those who can afford it."

New Haven and Hamden community members marched to the Hamden Police Department to protest the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon III.
New Haven and Hamden community members marched to the Hamden Police Department to protest the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon III.Robbie Short

A 2016 report in The Nation touched on how activists wanted Yale to commit to creating quality jobs for residents.

"Getting workers a foot in the door is a modest step toward leveling the city's historically skewed economic landscape," the report said.

At a community forum in February, Janet Lindner, the vice president for human resources and administration at Yale, said the university hired more than 2,500 residents over the last three years and that 43 percent were black or Latino. Activists, however, criticized that some of the jobs are in construction or contract positions that are temporary.

The shooting near Yale's campus has also brought up questions about how the university's police force operates and why an officer fired a weapon in an off-campus encounter.

A petition circulating around the school is calling for Pollock's termination and for Yale to donate financially to Witherspoon and Washington, including for her medical expenses. While Witherspoon wasn't injured during the officers' crossfire, Washington was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, officials said.

New Haven police arrived to the scene after the shots were fired.

Connecticut State Police said last week that the officers engaged their weapons when the driver "exited the vehicle in an abrupt manner" and turned toward them. Upon releasing Eaton's bodycam footage on Tuesday, following multiple days of protests for police accountability, State Police Commissioner James Rovella could not detail why the officers opened fire after commanding the driver to open the car door. Witherspoon could be seen on Eaton's bodycam getting out of his car at that moment.

Eaton only turned on the bodycam after the shooting, and Pollock failed to turn his on at all.

Witherspoon, who was not found to be armed, has not been charged. State police and the Connecticut State's Attorney's Office are still investigating the case, Rovella said, and both officers remain on paid administrative leave.

The Black Students for Disarmament at Yale said it favors the school's officers being unarmed and restricted in where they can patrol off campus. The group on Friday plans to march students' letters of complaint to the Yale Police Department.

Yale didn't respond to questions about the students complaints, but Lindner said in an email to the Yale community that the school is "engaging an outside expert" to assist with its own investigation of the shooting.

"The shooting was a tragedy, and Yale offers its heartfelt feelings of concern to Ms. Washington, Mr. Witherspoon, and their families. We all want a just outcome," Lindner wrote.

Faith leaders in New Haven have credited Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins, who is black, with trying to forge a better relationship with his force and the public.

But there was a setback last year when a white student called campus police on a black Yale graduate student who had been napping in a common room. The encounter led Yale to apologize and commit to creating a more inclusive environment on campus.

John Lewis, a pastor at the Life Center Ministries in New Haven and a nonviolence trainer with the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, said local police officers need additional training on de-escalation tactics as well as "bringing humanity back into the picture."

"In our community, is there violence? Yes. Is there poverty? Yes. Are there disparities? Yes. But when you're dealing with a situation that's going on, you're going to have to have a bit more empathy," Lewis said. "You can't be detached from the community. You have to be more engaged from the beginning instead of assuming every person is a threat."

In January, New Haven officials approved the creation of a Civilian Review Board to monitor and independently investigate alleged police misconduct — an effort more than 20 years in the making.

New Haven police did not return a request for comment.

Canton said the underlying issue of race can't be ignored in last week's shooting even though all involved — the two officers and the driver and passenger — are black.

Officers in general rarely face prosecution in police-involved shootings, and communities of color are wary that white officers in particular aren't held liable for the deaths of unarmed black people, Canton added.

But for the black officers at the center of the New Haven shooting, there's the question of whether they'll face any charges or repercussions — and what it says about the justice system if they do.

"Either way," Canton said, "they're in a tough spot."