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Hartford Police vehicle (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

Two Connecticut universities and two charities are teaming up in the Greater Hartford region to create an institute to train police officers on building relationships with youth in the community.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Travelers Championship will each donate $150,000 over two years to the University of New Haven’s Center for Advanced Policing (CAP) and Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI) to create the Connecticut Institute for Youth and Police Relations (CIYPR) in Greater Hartford. The grant will also support Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which will hold public listening sessions to gain input from the community about the role of police.

“What we hope is that this will become a model for other law enforcement agencies across the state of Connecticut, that the police officers themselves who are going through it become the greatest advocates for it, and begin to speak to their fellow officers about how transformative this is,” said Jay Williams, president of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

The grant will pay for a training site, staff and materials needed for the course.

Professionals at CAP and TYJI will staff the institute and will work to identify police officers in the 29 municipalities in the Greater Hartford region who interact regularly with youth. These officers will then complete a one-year training class which requires them to develop and implement a community plan in order to pass.

“They do not take a test because it’s a practical application,” said Dr. Danielle Cooper, director of research at TYJI. “We hope that what we are teaching them to do allows the officer to go and identify an area of need with a community partner and identify an approach that would address that need and integrate youth and the community in that approach.”

Cooper said that creating a community partner means that an officer would identify another aspect of the community that serves youth, such as a church, and figure out a way that the officer and the youth organization can work together to solve a problem.

“It’s not just that one officer, and it’s not just the police department,” Cooper said. “It’s the officer, the police department and the community working together to address that, for example, kids don’t have somewhere to go after school.”

The number of community and police partnerships formed is one way the instructors will measure the success of the program.

Calls for police reform have been louder than ever in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. Several proposed solutions nationwide involve “defunding” police departments and redirecting funds to support social service-related organizations, many of which support youth.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Travelers Championship along with UNH and CCSU started developing a grant focused on improving police-community relations over a year ago — before the death of George Floyd and national protests.

Now as the protests have transitioned from a moment to a movement bringing changes to police departments across America, the two organizations realized their initiative was more important than ever.

“George Floyd and the other situations that have evolved since then, they all bring to light a need to improve,” said Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Travelers. “Continual improvement is a part of life and we have to continue to improve everything we do. … This is something that has been evolving and these more recent unfortunate situations brought to light what needed to be done. This is an opportunity to do something really positive in and around the Capitol region.”

Experts at CCSU’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy have been working with the General Assembly’s Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force to develop a series of recommendations for Connecticut police. The listening sessions funded by the grant will allow community members to provide feedback for a final report.

“It will help to give voice through the public listening sessions to people who have been expressing urgency and a need for reform and change,” said Andrew Clark, director of CCSU’s Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy. “This is a tangible way that they can use their voice to advocate for reform and the task force is there to listen and to potentially bring some of those measures to consideration of the General Assembly and the governor.

While the work by the task force does not specifically, focus on youth, this new initiative will. A study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 1998 and 2008, youth aged 16-18 comprised 7.6% of the U.S. population, but were involved in 30.1% of police use-of-force events.

“Youth need the type of guidance and support to navigate as they become more mature,” Williams said. “At that age, you can’t approach the situation as you would with an adult. You have to be empathetic and understand their perspective.”

The grant unites the two pre-existing efforts at UNH and CCSU under a common purpose — to train police officers with input from the people they serve. While the grant lasts two years, Cooper said these efforts will continue.

“We want to be able to hear what the community is asking for and thinking about and then we will also have an immediate set of officers to ourselves as we are working with them in communities to see how we translate this to other officers and improve this in the future to deliver it to more officers,” Cooper said. “This first cohort of officers becomes really important.”