Local police departments would be required to host conversations at least four times a year about how their communities can prevent gun violence, according to a bill that passed the State Senate on Wednesday.
State Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, said the bill was designed to improve the relationship between police and the community, which he said would create “safer streets.”
Along with municipal police, the quarterly “roundtables” must include local mental health and social services providers, local gun violence organizations and at least one prosecutor who works in the district.
The original bill also created a pilot program that would grant cities with over 100,000 people, where gun violence has been on the rise, funding for community policing. But Gaston said the program was cut from the bill because of budget constraints.
The pilot program would have applied to five municipalities: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford.
State Sen. Paul Ciccarella, R-North Haven, said gun violence was a problem across the state, not just in specific communities. He said the plan was to find a funding mechanism that would reach all communities in the state struggling with gun violence.
Ciccarella also said money would be necessary to address the issues that community conversations would likely shine light on.
“As [problems are] identified, we’re going to have to address them. And again, that would come in the form of some type of resource to the departments, to handle this with these [police departments] being so understaffed,” Cicarella said.
But Gaston noted that while there was gun violence in all areas of the state, it was concentrated in some areas more than others.
“We certainly understand that gun violence is something that’s pervasive across the state of Connecticut, and we do understand as well that there are certain populations within our state that we have to fix our gaze on because gun violence is actually heightened in those specific communities,” he said.
The Senate voted down a proposed Republican amendment that would have required more detailed data collection about gun incidents, including whether the perpetrator had a prior conviction and whether the guns involved were legally owned.
‘We do it all the time’
Police chiefs who spoke with CT Examiner Wednesday were in favor of the bill.
New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson said his department regularly meets with nonprofit groups like Project Longevity, which works to combat gun violence, and Clifford Beers and the Yale Child Study Center, which provide mental health services. He said the department also does community walks with these organizations to check in on “at-risk” young people who have been shot previously or have participated in shootings themselves.
“We do it all the time. We do community canvases. We identify at-risk people,” he said.
Jacobson said the department began doing its outreach work in 2013, and that over the next six years homicides dropped 50 percent and the number of non-fatal shootings dropped even further. He said the department saw a spike in 2020 and 2021 when they weren’t able to physically meet with people because of COVID. Last year, he said, the department started in-person outreach again, and homicides once again dropped.
So far this year, the number of shootings have stayed the same but homicides have increased, he said.
“I think it’s the availability of handguns. … Everybody’s quick to fight, right? We’re seeing that, and unfortunately these fights are started with guns,” Jacobson said. “We’ve … really worked very hard at messaging and we’ve slowed it down.”
Jacobson said it would be helpful to have funding put toward community policing, which he explained is a big part of New Haven’s policing strategy.
“With our staffing shortages and everything else, most of our walking beats and our community events are staffed through overtime,” he said. “So it would’ve helped to have some money, first of all, to throw in a community event — because those take money. And then, second of all, to staff different community policing things.”
Like Jacobson, Bridgeport Police Chief Roderick Porter, said his city was already hosting similar conversations. He agreed that funding community policing would have helped “enhance” some of the department’s efforts.
Porter said gun violence in Bridgeport mainly affects young Black men, over what he described as “petty differences over affiliations.” In most cases, he said, both the victims and the perpetrators have prior convictions. And Jacobson said the majority of shootings in New Haven are driven by gangs or arguments in the street.
Although Middletown would not have qualified for community policing funding under the bill, Police Chief Erik Costa said when he became the police chief he established a task force aimed at developing strategies for the city, including gun violence prevention. Costa said the police department was working with local organizations and the Board of Education to create programming that could improve relations between the police and the community.
“[The bill] will strengthen support for police departments looking for funding opportunities and partnerships to develop programming that meets the needs to deal with core issues we see – domestic violence, mental health and residential stability,” Costa said.
New London Police Chief Brian Wright also said he was in favor of the community conversations.
“I think anytime there’s any incident involving a firearm, it’s a pressing issue, so one’s too many,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t control it, but we will do our best to ensure that our public and community stays safe.”
‘Tough conversations that need to be had’
Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario, CEO of the nonprofit COMPASS Youth Collaborative in Hartford, which works to deter gun violence by providing mentorship and after-school activities for at-risk youth, said she also believed the community conversations would have a positive impact.
“I think they’re tough conversations that need to be had. And I think they’re talking about it from a multidisciplinary approach, bringing different perspectives to the table, and I think that is always a healthy direction,” she said.
Santiago Nazario noted there would need to be some community outreach done to make people feel comfortable participating in the conversations. But she said gun violence has actually decreased in Hartford this month compared to other years, and that she felt Hartford was already doing a good job with community policing.
In addition to the groups mentioned in the bill, Santiago Nazario said she believed local hospitals and groups that work on gun policy, such as UConn, should be involved in the conversations.
“ I think we could even begin to think about violence in a broader manner. We can begin to have discussions about the need for housing, and the need for jobs and greenscaping, places that are greener and have more parks and activity,” she said.
Santiago Nazario also said she felt the conversations could help give a clear definition to what “community policing” means.
“I think at the core of community policing means that we start to build relationships and understand the intricacies and the uniqueness of each of the communities, and begin to treat people as whole people, not just from a punitive perspective,” she said. “I think that if we can start thinking about treating violence like the public health issue that it is, the way that we police will be different, the way that we engage and work with community and community agencies will be different.”