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Shackles used in the slave trade are part of the Images of America exhibit collected and curated by Jeffrey fletcher. After being used as part of a presentation on race relations for the East Haven Police Department, the collection is now displayed through Friday, Dec. 16 at the Lyman Center on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Fletcher )
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Watching violence erupt between police and African-American communities nationwide, Jeffrey Fletcher, a 21-year veteran of the New Haven Police Department, became frustrated. As an African American police officer, he wanted to find a way to ease the tensions between police and African Americans by helping police officers understand the history of mistrust.
Fletcher had previously worked with James Naccarato, now the East Haven Police Department (EHPD) deputy chief, for 18 years and reached out to him with an idea for starting a conversation about African-American history, which Fletcher feels plays a key role in police officers understanding the communities in which they work.
“Even though he was on vacation, he called me back in about 15 minutes,” said Fletcher. “I began to express my frustrations about police-related shootings in the African-American or urban communities and I told him I had a starting point where we can open a dialog about why many African Americans mistrust the police.”
Naccarato approached EHPD Chief Ed Lennon with the idea and soon after, a training session was scheduled. The training session featured Fletcher’s personal collection of artifacts and memorabilia of African-American history, Images of America, which was also presented to the public at Joseph Melillo Middle School on Oct. 19.
According to the Images of America website www.africanamericancollections.com, “The artifacts and images of the exhibit help to explain how the debilitating effects of slavery and its legacy of institutional racism continue to impact America. The urgency to begin a dialog about this history is important so that stereotypes and myths are dispelled.”
The Origins of Images of America
Fletcher’s parents lived in South Carolina during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era, eventually moving to Connecticut. Years later, after Fletcher had gone on to college, his mother began to collect items from tag sales that were reflective of black Americana.
“When I’d come home on breaks from school, I’d notice more knick knacks,” said Fletcher. “I just thought they were bric-a-brac.”
Fletcher earned a psychology degree from University of New Haven, working for the State of Connecticut’s Mental Health Department for 14 years. After taking a year off to examine what path he wanted to take, Fletcher found an opportunity in law enforcement.
“I took advantage of it, went into the academy, and ended up being class president,” said Fletcher. “My mother wasn’t too thrilled about it, because anything she took away from her childhood was the negativity of law enforcement. She had some very harsh memories.”
While Fletcher had some understanding of his mother’s past, it didn’t truly sink in until after she passed away. After his mother’s death, among things that were left to Fletcher was a box of the “knick knacks” she had collected over the years.
“I think part of it was humorous on her part, but after opening the boxes and taking a look, I realized these items were describing her childhood and the climate of segregation and civil rights issues over years,” said Fletcher. “It all made sense after she passed away and it dawned on me what her collection was about. In homage or legacy, I decided to start doing the same thing.”
Fletcher used more modern technology such as online auctions and sales to add to the collection, which now stands at more than 3,000 pieces. He recently took part of the collection to the Waterbury Marriott where he was the keynote speaker at NAACP Freedom Fund luncheon. The collection will be on display at Southern Connecticut State University’s Lyman Auditorium through Friday, Dec. 16 and it will travel to Alabama in April.
When Fletcher realized the impact the collection had on him, he wanted to share that message with others. He was inspired by a program by former United States attorney general Eric Holder. Holder’s program brought FBI recruits to visit a holocaust museum.
“They visited the museum for tolerance and diversity,” said Fletcher. “As I read about this process, I thought, ‘I have this collection and it, too, is similar to a holocaust museum.’ Mine is a traveling museum with horrific artifacts.”
Using Images of America to Train Police Departments
Once Fletcher realized the power of his collection and drawing upon his two-plus-decades experience as a police officer, he began to think about ways to present the information to police departments as a learning tool. Having worked with Naccarato in the past, he started with the EHPD.
“Why not see if I can present to police departments to help them understand where this mistrust is coming from?” said Fletcher. “Who better to do it than myself, because when I present, I’m saying, ‘I am you and you are me. We are certified by the same standards.’ It hits home and comes back to roost. We wear the same uniform and our objective is to protect and serve whatever community we’re in.”
Over the course of three days, all 52 sworn members of the EHPD got a glimpse of Fletcher’s collection and opened a dialog about race relations and the impact that African-American history has had on African Americans’ perception of the police. EHPD Lieutenant Joseph Murgo saw firsthand what a difference having the items from the collection in the room made.
“He had different tool slaves used, the shackles that the owners used on the slaves—things that you could touch and feel,” said Murgo. “You read it about it in books, but seeing it brought a whole different light. [Fletcher’s] intention is to educate us on the history side of it and present that the police have the responsibility to understand your culture, but African Americans and other cultures have a responsibility to understand police culture, too.”
Fletcher pointed out that much of the mistrust from the police stems from information passed from generation to generation. He noted that when he was young, the television aired news from the Vietnam War and from the Civil Rights movement. In presenting to members of the EHPD, he found that many officers didn’t share those memories as they were younger.
“This is the millennial generation and there was a huge gap in terms of cultural awareness education—not because they were ignoring it or didn’t want to hear it, it goes back to early education in the curriculum,” said Fletcher. “The reason I know this information is not because I was taught, but because I was a product of the 1960s when we were watching Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], President [John F.] Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and the horrific things going on in the south at the time.”
In examining education systems, Fletcher has found that most curriculum is not teaching much of this information. He is hoping to use his exhibit and what he has learned to bring this history to the forefront.
“I want to take this collection to start the conversation to understand where this mistrust is coming from as people have either experienced it personally or the information has been passed down,” said Fletcher. “I can understand how the collection ties into the whole issue of why African Americans mistrust the police.”
Murgo saw the training as an eye-opening experience, learning a lot about the Civil Rights movement and African-American history. Once the topic was opened to discussion, he saw his fellow officers open up about experiences.
“To move forward or progress toward the future, you have to be able to open a positive dialog. It’s important to understand and respect a culture and the past or you’re bound to repeat the same mistakes,” said Murgo. “Once we addressed that elephant in the room, people started feeling comfortable with the topic and it opened a positive dialog, even amongst officers who have known each other for years.”
Fletcher agreed that most of the officers were reluctant to begin the conversation, but after getting to know each other, there were many positive discussions. As this was the first meeting with a police department, Fletcher also learned more about presenting the topic to other departments in the future.
“I hope I’ll be invited to bring it to other police departments where we can talk openly and be honest with each other, breaking through the stereotypes and myths,” said Fletcher. “This is all about education and making sure that every police officer is able serve and understand every community.”
For information on Images of America, visit africanamericancollections.com.
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