Monday, June 26, 2017
An overflow Westport Library audience turned out tonight for a discussion about blacks and policing across America with a CBS News journalist who grew up here and his old pal, now Westport’s police chief.
The crowd in the McManus Room likely did not expect the discussion to hit close to home. But it did.
The talk centered on a new book by CBS News Justice and Homeland Security correspondent Jeff Pegues, “Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America.”
Pegues, who lived with his family on Prospect Road from 1979 to 2000, joined in conversation with Police Chief Foti Koskinas. The two were football teammates at Staples High School.
After much of the book was completed, Pegues ran into Koskinas last September when Pegues was inducted into the Staples Wall of Fame. They talked and Pegues decided to add a chapter to the book devoted to Koskinas and Westport.
“He (Koskinas) said ‘we are having some of these (blacks and policing) problems here.’” Pegues said.
Explained Koskinas: “These are difficult times.” With New York City not far away and Norwalk and Bridgeport much closer, he said racial issues impact Westport police officers even though the town has a small minority population of blacks.
Koskinas said he has worked closely with TEAM Westport, the town’s multicultural diversity committee, which was a sponsor of tonight’s talk. “They have been terrific,” he said, especially thanking TEAM Westport Chairman Harold Bailey, who introduced him.
“I’ve probably disagreed with Harold this year more than we agreed,” Koskinas said.
A questioner asked the chief how racial issues have impacted the Westport department. He then recounted something he told Pegues in the book: some of his officers upon seeing a black driver speeding or using a cellphone just let the car go by. “They just don’t want to get involved,” Koskinas said, adding they want to avoid a complaint or conflict.
Afterward, Bailey said of such actions by Westport officers: “That’s unacceptable. You’ve got to do your job. Running away will not solve the problem.”
The Westport Police Department has rigorous standards for hiring, even scouring social media comments of applicants, checking their tattoos if they have any, and talking to former college roommates, yet some “bad apples” inevitably make it through, Koskinas said.
“We need to do better on all levels, training and screening,” he said.
Pegues said across the country, there is a history of mistrust of the police. He recounted reading Department of Justice reports about investigations into police departments where he said police dogs targeted blacks. There was also a report of a black woman being strip searched in the middle of a street.
“How does that happen?” Pegues asked. “There’s something wrong with the system.”
It is up to the police to get more involved with the communities they serve, he said. “I hope we can see the other side and hear what people are saying.”
Pegues said there is a need for police to get out and learn the facts especially in this age of misinformation. “Go into the communities and talk to the people,” he said, adding that critics instead of criticizing should join police departments.
“They are having difficulty recruiting,” Pegues said.
After the discussion with Koskinas, Pegues signed copies of his book and greeted friends and former classmates from Westport. Watching from the audience and clearly beaming with pride were Pegues’ parents, Bettye and Joseph Pegues.
“We drove by the old house on Prospect Road,” said the senior Pegues, then with Citibank and the World Bank Institute and now an economist and independent banking professional in the Washington, D.C. area. “It’s nice to be back.”
Posted 06/26/17 at 09:39 PM Permalink