July 6, 2006
Opinion By HELEN UNBINAS, Courant Staff Writer
Sherin Bryant's angry glare didn't shift from the police officer accused of killing her brother - not when she watched Robert Lawlor walk into Superior Court; not when she took a seat in the second row of the Hartford courtroom, and not when she followed him outside, shouting at Lawlor to acknowledge her.
"Look at me!" she yelled. "You killed my brother!"
In many ways, the tension at the courthouse was predictable. Cops on one side, community on the other. And in the middle an issue that has long plagued this city - the ingrained mistrust between both sides.
What wasn't as predictable - especially with all the TV cameras around - was the fact that the community activists were missing in action.
No Cornell Lewis.
Not even the Rev. Donald Johnson's trusty bullhorn made an appearance Wednesday.
But the absence that spoke loudest was that of the newly appointed police chief, Daryl Roberts.
"I didn't know," he said when I asked him why he wasn't there. Lawlor is accused of shooting 18-year-old Jashon Bryant during a confrontation in a parking lot in the city's North End in May 2005.
Let me be clear here, I'm not trying to attack Roberts. He's yet to be officially sworn in so it's a little early to play gotcha, even for me. And Jashon Bryant's family has nothing but positive things to say about him.
"He was the one cop who didn't talk to me like a cop, but like a father, when this first happened," said Jashon's father, Keith Thomas.
It's quite an endorsement from a man whose hatred for the white cop who shot his black son sometimes consumes him. But it's moments like the one at the courthouse Wednesday that speak loudest about a leader.
Everyone at the courthouse had chosen sides. Roberts is the one guy who doesn't have to, who can walk the line between the cops and the community. While he may be part of a police force the community doesn't trust, the community trusts him.
Could he have quelled the tension between the family and the police officers who showed up to support Lawlor? Probably not. Would the cop who quipped, "I'll be able to sleep," when the family asked Lawlor how he was able to sleep at night, have held his tongue? You would hope.
But there were bigger issues here.
"We got to take it," one family member said, "because we black and he's white."
What played out at that courthouse wasn't just about one family's grief, but about the relentless mistrust between cops and community, especially the African American community. Wednesday was a flashpoint - not just for a family looking for justice, but for a community that has long viewed the battle as blue vs. black.
And that's why I was struck by what a lost opportunity this was for the man who said he would only succeed as chief with the community's help - and trust. He could have sent a message just by walking in, setting the tone not just for that moment but for his upcoming tenure.
I don't think Roberts bought my argument, but he acknowledged he's got a tough road ahead.
"I have a lot of rebuilding to do," Roberts said. "I have to mend some fences out there, build some relationships. It's not going to be easy, but I have to show the community that we're in this together."
Jashon Bryant's family hopes he succeeds.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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