Fairfield leaders face criticism in community discussion on race inequality

FAIRFIELD — In what was billed as a conversation on race inequality and policing, Fairfield’s leaders faced criticism for what some in attendance called lip service and virtue signaling.

The event, held earlier this week, came after weeks of nationwide and local protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer May 25.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said she wanted the conversation to be the first of many in the town of Fairfield, adding that she had appointed Selectman Nancy Lefkowitz to lead a task force on racial injustice and inequity. She said the task force would meet with community partners to see what actions need to be taken.

In a nearly two hour meeting held through Webex, a majority of the time was taken up by elected officials and police representatives making statements. The panel included all three selectmen, the entire state legislative delegation, a Representative Town Meeting member and police officials. It was moderated by Rabbi Marcelo Kormis.

While members of the public did speak, their questions were not directly answered by officials. In lieu of that, those who listened in used the chat feature to discuss the topics brought up.

Julie Gottlieb said that, while she appreciated the effort that was put into organizing the event, it fell short of her expectations.

“This was billed as a community conversation and, I’m going to be brutally honest, I don’t see much of the community represented here,” Gottlieb said, adding that only one person of color was on the panel. “It’s not a conversation, because we are speaking and there’s no way for us to engage and there’s no way for us to have the dialogue that needs to be had.”

Jason Racheotes, who prefaced his questions by saying they were going to be rough, asked the panel a long list of questions about the police department, its policies and its budget.

“Has Fairfield ever successfully indicted a police officer for misconduct?” Racheotes asked. “What percentage actually live in Fairfield? What percent of Fairfield police are non-white? What is the median income for Fairfield police officers?”

In his opening statement, Chief of Police Christopher Lyddy said that, after Floyd’s killing, his takeaway as chief of police was that it was “time to shut up for a while and listen.” He said the message he has received was that people of color did not feel safe walking down the streets in Fairfield, a predominantly white town.

“I’m deeply concerned about the weaponization of police in our community,” Lyddy said. “A person walking down the street, of color, was the target of a phone call, and we become that weapon responding to a neighborhood’s concern.”

Lyddy said it was important to build bridges with people of color so that they feel comfortable interacting with police.

Before him, Capt. Robert Kalamaras said the department was “doing most things right.” He said he was proud of the community for how peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been as well as the police officers for their behavior at the protests. Hannah Kayumba took issue with that statement in the chat.

“There is so much wrong with this I can’t even put into words,” Kayumba typed in chat. “Why are we praising trained police officers holding guns for keeping cool? every protest I've been to has been peaceful. I’ve felt safe — and not because there was an officer there.”

Amanda Hanson said she is the mother of a black son who the police stopped last year for “trespassing” while he was on their property, and that they held peaceful protests then.

“So, this isn’t the beginning of the conversation for this town,” Hanson said. “We have been having the conversation for a year. Maybe you’re all just getting caught up.”

When it was her turn to speak, Molly Baker said she took umbrage with comments made by state Rep. Brian Farnen, who called for independent investigations of police misconduct and the use of body cameras, and said there were “a few bad apples” in policing.

“It’s not just a few bad apples. I don’t know that much about the Fairfield Police Department, but I can assure you that you are not there yet,” Baker said, referencing an earlier comment by Kalamaras. “Training needs to change drastically in all police departments in all of America.”

Both in public comment and in the chat, many of the people in attendance shared their ideas for addressing racial inequity and police brutality in Fairfield. They included regionalizing public schools, creating more affordable housing and investing more money in social workers.

Kayumba said Yabantu, a social justice organization she helped found, had requested that officers in Fairfield be given diversity training — to no avail. She said it was clear which members of the panel tried to educate themselves before the meeting, naming state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey.

“It’s clear that a lot of you just came on here to do a lot of lip service,” Kayumba said. “It’s just really clear to me who really care about this.”

After public comment, the panelists took another turn speaking. Kupchick said she realized that the forum was not perfect, adding that the coronavirus pandemic prevented the town from hosting an in-person event. She said she was disappointed in what she referred to as partisanship in the comments made by the public.

Tameisha Powell-Dunmore, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 6 and the only person of color on the panel, said communication was needed on all sides. She said the town needed to ally with people in the community who have been advocating for racial equity.

“I really believe we need to educate,” Powell-Dunmore said. “All of us. We need to understand each other. We’re all culturally different. I’m looking forward to the conversations that will be had.”

McCarthy Vahey said she frequently tells her children that all growth is painful, and later said that getting criticism and accepting it is critical to being able to engage in a dialogue.