WEST HAVEN — Racism allegations surrounding a state representative and a police officer took center stage at a police commission meeting this week, with the debate evolving into one about department leaders and race relations.
“In all the years that I have lived in West Haven, I find the current (police) administration is probably the worst I’ve seen since I’ve lived here,” said West Haven Black Coalition President Carroll E. Brown. “I’m extremely disappointed in the way things are handled.”
A heated public comment session dominated the majority of the meeting Tuesday night, with Brown and Yale Divinity student Alexander Hamilton accusing state Rep. Louis Esposito, D-West Haven, and a police officer of racial bias. Esposito defended his actions, and police union President Walter Casey, as well as a local minister, also jumped in during the public input portion.
Brown and Hamilton, who are black, say Esposito, who is white, exhibited racial bias recently when Esposito called the police on Hamilton, who mistakenly parked in front of Esposito’s house and ignored the politician when he asked if Hamilton needed help. Hamilton, a clergyman and civil rights lawyer, had been looking for Brown’s home. The pair also says the police officer responding to the Oct. 21 incident acted aggressively, causing Hamilton to fear for his safety.
Brown said the case highlights a broader issue in the department and beyond.
“If you guys sit here and act like there is no problem in West Haven — there is a racial problem in West Haven. Don’t be afraid to say it. Admit it! Don’t deny it! There is a problem,” Brown told the commission. “Your officers are stopping my little boys walking the streets of West Haven. When my grandson isn’t safe walking the streets, there is a problem. And if this is what you’re doing to my grandson, what are you doing to the rest of the kids out here that look like me?”
Commission Chairman Ray Collins said residents are constantly reminded to report suspicious activity through the motto, “See something, say something,” but acknowledged concerns that race played a role Oct. 21. The department is investigating the incident, though no formal complaint has been made by anyone involved.
“I have had the ability to listen to the 911 call from Mr. Esposito,” Collins said. “I’ve also heard the dispatch call. Mr. Esposito was very professional, saying he was concerned about a car. The officer, I will take exception, because the officer is a new officer who is highly regarded in the force. He’s not from West Haven, has no pre-conceived notion of who anybody is, didn’t know who you were after he left you. We weren’t there, so I can’t say how he behaved there. As far as what the records show, he did everything by the book.”
Brown vowed to take the matter to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging that Esposito went up to Hamilton’s car and questioned him because he was black. She and Hamilton also said Esposito repeatedly asked Hamilton, “May I help you?” in a hostile tone and wrote down his car license plate, prompting a frightened Hamilton to roll up his car window and avoid speaking to Esposito or escalating the situation. Police should have understood Hamilton was lost and dropped the issue, as Brown lives at 56 Highview Ave. and Esposito lives at 56 Lakeview Ave., Brown said.
Esposito said he walked over to the car because he had been standing outside talking to a neighbor and noticed Hamilton looking at his home. Esposito said that if Hamilton had simply said he was lost and looking for Brown’s home, he could have directed him to the correct address, and that he spoke loudly so Hamilton could hear him. Because Hamilton did not respond, Esposito felt the act was suspicious.
“It makes no difference who you are. If you’re looking suspicious, someone’s going to call. You want to check how many times I’ve called the bus companies or the city Public Works Department for problems with vehicles?” Esposito said. “When something goes wrong, whether it’s in my neighborhood or in my town or in my state, I’m going to call and report it, and I’m not ashamed to do it, and if it happened again tomorrow, I would do it again.”
Brown and Hamilton also addressed the responding police officer’s behavior, with Hamilton saying that if Brown’s husband, retired Detective Sgt. Teddy Brown, hadn’t stepped in and talked with the officer when he came to the Browns’ home, “I believe I would have been in the hospital.”
Hamilton added that the word “suspicious” is too easily thrown around and that he wants to prevent future similar incidents in the city because racist actions can land a city and Police Department in big trouble. Brown further questioned the kind of directions officers are given.
“When they stand up for lineup, are they talked to? Do you tell them when somebody comes into West Haven with braids, pull them over because their licenses have expired? When you see them coming into West Haven, see if they’re driving their own car?” she asked. “All that kind of stuff is racial profiling.”
The comments didn’t sit easy with Casey, who described himself as a friend of the Browns, but unable to sit by idly when his department was criticized in that manner.
“Those statements, I think, are painting the Police Department with a very broad brush here. … When I hear statements that this department is not sensitive to minorities, that there’s harassment and racial profiling and, specifically when she said, if my ears heard correctly, she indicated that in lineup we mention that we stop people with braids — I go to lineups and never heard that in lineups at all,” Casey said. “I take it personally. As corny as it sounds, I’m very proud of being a West Haven police officer here for 44 years, and I am sensitive to all of the community.”
Though the entire commission did not officially discuss the matter, Commissioner Deborah Wright questioned if conversations on race sensitivity should be incorporated not only in the Police Department but also at community meetings. The situation is something everyone can learn from, she said, and the department can always make improvements.
“It’s the elephant in the room you really can’t ignore. It’s up to us, I think, to pull together the community and the Police Department,” Wright said.
Brown also had suggested Chief John Karajanis Jr. should meet with her coalition to improve the force’s relationship with minorities. But Karajanis noted that since he became chief, the department has held meetings twice a year with each of the three sections of the city.
“If you have any doubts about a situation, call us and we’ll look into matters and try to investigate them. … We ended up in the middle of what clearly is an underlying issue of perception,” Karajanis said.
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