Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer
NAUGATUCK — A forum designed to open a dialogue between borough youth and Naugatuck police touched on several issues from racism to police policies and training.
DeWygee Williams, a Naugatuck resident and mother of four, organized the July 15 virtual forum with Naugatuck Youth Services and Police Chief Steven Hunt to help empower the youth and improve relations with police.
“Our purpose for having this Zoom call is to give the youth of Naugatuck a safe and comfortable platform to address our Naugatuck Police Department with any issues, concerns and/or suggestions that they may have in regards to our community. … This is our first step toward assisting our town in its efforts to dispel racism, inequality, discrimination and any racial injustices within our community,” Williams said.
Williams, who was born and raised in Bridgeport, said she has witnessed police brutality and knows how it feels to be uncomfortable in her surroundings. The youth shouldn’t feel that, she said.
The forum came at a time of heightened awareness of social injustice and movements for racial justice across the country spurred by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and other police-involved killings.
The roughly 90-minute forum touched on racial issues, police policies and training, and the community relations with the police.
“Even though this what some will call an uncomfortable conversation, it’s a conversation that needs to be had,” said Williams, who is also a mentor with Naugatuck Youth Services.
When asked whether he believes the borough has a problem with racism, Hunt replied, “I think racism still exists and yes it’s in Naugatuck.”
Hunt said he’s seen how ugly racism can get between people who go back and forth in some Naugatuck Facebook groups.
“I hope that today’s conversation is the start of us educating one another and trying to eliminate racism from our hearts and from our community,” Hunt said.
Hunt said the police department does its best to train officers to be fair and impartial, and deescalate situations. In August, he said, officers will receive training on implicit bias from a Naugatuck Valley Community College professor.
“My message to officers right now, they’re coming on a very difficult time. There’s no doubt about that. You have to give respect to get respect back. You have to be able to communicate,” he said.
Williams and Hunt agreed there needs to be better communication between the community and police.
Hunt felt the younger generation can have a hard time with interpersonal communication due to growing up in the age of smartphones and digital technology. He said the training academy has changed how they teach new officers and put an emphasis on interpersonal communication skills.
“That interpersonal communications is very important,” Hunt said. “How you can communicate with people and how to do it in a respectful manner so that you earn the respect and the trust of those you’re serving.”
Hunt added he plans to start a police chief’s youth advisory board to discuss issues facing youth, racism, policing and what’s happening in the borough.
Williams said she plans to continue hosting forums and conversations with borough officials, and wants to start a diversity group to focus on equality.
“We are all in this fight for racial equality together and only together will we win,” Williams said.