Community Airs Police Concerns at Public Forum
Friday, May 04, 2012
“Why is it so hard for the police to say I’m sorry?” Claudia Russo asked into a microphone as the crowd listened intently. “What’s with this machismo attitude?”
The adoptive mother of 15-year-old David Russo spoke at Thursday night’s forum on community and police relations held at Claremont Academy. About 75 people, mostly city officials and community activists, attended the meeting, which ended up focusing largely on the arrest of David Russo last year in another part of the city. Tensions simmered for months until earlier this year, when the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida made national headlines.
Protesters subsequently rallied outside City Hall, raising the Russo issue all over again and asking why officials never addressed public concerns and charging police with racial profiling, something Police Chief Gary Gemme has vigorously denied. It led to a community gathering last month in the Hammond Heights Neighborhood. Thursday night’s forum was also supposed to take place last month, but was cancelled at the last minute when Gemme was unable to attend.
The chief sat stone-faced and silent after Claudia Russo finished speaking and returned to her table, sitting next to the Romanian boy she has raised and watched struggle with a severe hearing loss and learning disabilities brought about by an early brain injury. The apology she received came from Rev. Jose Encarnacion, a founding member of the Worcester Clergy and Police Community Partnership, which organized Thursday’s forum.
“I personally cannot stand to hear what you just said,” Encarnacion said. “Personally, I extend my apologies to you and your son.”
David Russo was 14 last summer when an incident with officers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute led to his arrest. Police had responded to a neighbor’s report of a suspicious person in the neighborhood. Russo had been visiting a friend. At Thursday’s forum, Claudia Russo told of how she called police to tell them her son had done nothing wrong and was told, “Lady, I can’t help you. He said if he gets arrested it’s his fault.”
David Russo spent several weeks in the hospital and did not want to come home, she said.
“The rage in him was so incredible it was frightening,” Claudia Russo. “It made me start thinking what happens to the youth that doesn’t have a mother like me who has the financial resources to advocate for him?”
She spoke of how her son has been stopped by police ever since he was 12 because of his appearance and of how he has overcome a brain injury and other obstacles. As she spoke, David Russo shifted in his seat at his table. After, he stood in a hallway as the forum continued and told a reporter he was both happy and hesitant about attending the meeting. He had put his name on the list of speakers.
'Sick and tired'
“I am nervous,” he said. “I haven’t done too much public speaking. I’m feeling nervousness and anxiousness. But I guess I want to speak out on my behalf about how it is for me. I want to speak to kids and tell them what I’ve been through.”
David Russo admitted to being confrontational with campus officers last year, because “I was sick and tired of all these people giving me stuff. I said, ‘shut the hell up.’”
Asked whether he thought Gemme should apologize, Russo said, “That’s up to him,” then added, “If he did, it would make my day.” He said his larger hope was for other children to not have to go through racial profiling.
Gemme spoke a couple times during the forum, appearing defiant as he repeatedly said he had never heard any complaints of racial profiling from community leaders. He sought to turn the discussion into one about gun crimes committed largely in communities of color.
“Let’s have a real debate,” said Gemme. “Let’s talk about what’s going on. Let’s do it as a community.”
A short time later, however, after an impassioned speech from activist Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, Gemme said, “We’re trying to hold a forum on race relations. It’s never really the responsibility of law enforcement. Is that really the function of law enforcement?”
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