The nation has been shaken by the injustices witnessed in states and cities across our country of high-profile police custody deaths involving minorities — most often African American young men.
These events, in Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, and elsewhere, are harsh reminders that we have not made as much progress in securing a fair and just society for our youth as we might have imagined.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society initiative recognizes the importance of relationships, engaging communities and ensuring that our citizens get a second chance, and fosters opportunities to deliver on the promises we make to our youth, many of whom have never had a real first chance.
Against this national backdrop, I am delighted to report that the Department of Children and Families sponsored a forum this week that brought police officers from Connecticut’s three major cities — Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven — to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), the Department of Children and Families’ secure juvenile justice program for boys. The Connecticut Center for Children’s Advocacy, through its Executive Director Martha Stone, along with the Yale Consultation Center, supported by funding from the MacArthur foundation, helped to replicate and expand the original Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Youth/Law Enforcement Curriculum to help Connecticut focus more directly on how implicit bias, racial stereotypes, mental health, and psychological trauma impact interactions between law enforcement and youth of color.
The 2015 Connecticut curriculum was named the Pennsylvania DMC Youth-Law Enforcement Curriculum: 2015 Connecticut Racial Equity Program to emphasize specifically the role and importance of racial equity in the juvenile justice system.
Police from each city were paired with boys from those communities to have a no-holds-barred discussion of race, justice, and law enforcement. There were some tense moments — no doubt because the issues surrounding fairness are very real in the daily lives of the boys, their families, and their communities.
Nevertheless, the issues of race and fairness, as well as of the effects of trauma and limited economic opportunities, were squarely met as both the police and the boys shared perspectives and gained understanding. Through facilitated role playing exercises, the officers had the opportunity to practice recognizing and responding to mental health concerns and trauma reactions in youth, and the youth were educated on how adolescent development, environmental influences, and personal views about respect can impact the way they think about and interact with police officers.
By all accounts, the Minority Youth-Law Enforcement Forum created more understanding about how we can make Connecticut move forward to encourage positive interactions between law enforcement and youth of color.
To make progress, we need to foster relationships. The youth who are sent to CJTS by our Juvenile Courts come primarily from the urban settings in Connecticut that have the greatest proportion of African Americans and Latino families, a reality that must be tackled.
We know that minorities have disproportionate contact with law enforcement and are overrepresented in every layer of the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems, so the conversations this week are a necessary step. Gov. Malloy’s participation in the program underscores how seriously the State of Connecticut takes these issues. The Governor’s Second Chance Society initiative is itself spawning discussions of how to make Connecticut a more fair, just, and compassionate place.
In conclusion, I want to thank CJTS Superintendent Bill Rosenbeck and his dedicated staff along with DCF’s juvenile justice social workers and probation staff from the Judicial Branch as well as the police departments from Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford for having the courage to support this effort. Many parts of this country can take a lesson.
Joette Katz is Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
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