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New Haven Police Chief Ontoniel Reyes (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

New Haven Police Chief Ontoniel Reyes said that the underlying issues of poverty and injustice in the community need to be addressed, but not with the police.

“Some people say to me, ‘You’re a cop; you’re almost talking against having more police,’” Reyes said. “Well yeah I am. Because the communities don’t need the police. If you want healthy communities, they are devoid of police.

Reyes and other community leaders spoke at a virtual forum, “Policing in This Current Age: A Conversation,” hosted by the Jewish Federation of New Haven, Reverend Stephen Cousin and Rep. Themis Klarides. Reyes focused his remarks on the problems that communities face that police cannot solve and in some cases, are exacerbated by police.

“Our goal should be to rid our communities of police,” Reyes said. “That’s how we know we have gotten somewhere, the question is, are we ready for that right now?”

Reyes, who grew up in New Haven, said that there is much less crime on the streets than when he was a little boy. But he noted that the amount of poverty has remained the same and in some cases increased.

“The social economic issues that are still making it difficult for people to come out and succeed, education issues, all these systemic issues — if we want to stop the prison pipeline and we continue to have a large presence of police in a community and you have you have a community that is impoverished with kids who resort to selling drugs, you’re going to have police arresting kids for selling drugs,” Reyes said.

Adding law enforcement to the equation creates a cycle that ultimately results in more arrests and more people in prison, and Reyes said the way to stop the cycle is to take a look at the role of police.

“Do we need to hire good cops?” Reyes asked. “Of course we do. Do we need to make sure that we have good community-police relations? Of course we do. But to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you put law enforcement out there to handle community issues, they see drug issues and they address it. But in the same breath we say we don’t want our kids going to jail for low-level drug offenses.”

Reyes’s comments followed a discussion between other leaders and activists about the idea of “defunding the police” which has risen in popularity in the wake of George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests.

Rev. Keith King of Christian Tabernacle Baptist Church in Hamden said he is not in favor of defunding police.

“I think that is a term to suggest we don’t need the police,” King said. “There are times when people are committing crimes of violence when I think all of us would want someone with a firearm.”

He said the idea of defunding should not be so much about getting rid of the police as it is about determining the role of police alongside other professionals

“Are the police engaged in activities that other social professionals, other social services could handle?” King asked.

Issues like domestic abuse and traffic violations should not be handled by a police officer King said. For example, King suggested that it wouldn’t take an armed officer to deal with a counterfeit $20 bill, George Floyd’s simple infraction that started the movement.

Assistant Chief of Police at Yale University Anthony Campbell said there is a range of meanings for defunding the police, but he agrees that America needs police in some form.

“Funding for police and policing has to be reimagined and changed drastically,” Campbell said. “Many in the black community do not get the service that they should from the police. Some of that funding should go to social services, education but I also think it needs to be part of the educational process for anyone thinking of taking a police position.”

Police officers must learn about the history of policing in America and how this history still impacts policing today, Campbell said.

Students at Yale University, where Campbell works, have launched a petition to defund the Yale Police Department which has about 6,000 signatures.

Defunding the police is not a new term, but it has risen in as a rallying cry after several highly visible incidents of police brutality. Dori Dumas, present of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP, said the phrase has so many different meanings for different people that it is important to have conversations about it with “everyone at the table.”

“Those of us that are community activists who are really trying to see the change, we need to hear all views,” Dumas said. “Then we need to sit down with people who have expertise about how we can execute and get some of these things in place. If we just keep talking about it and not moving to action, we’re not going to see it. I feel like the time is now.”