Anna Tornello (President of the Police Union in Wilton, CT)

Fermiamoci un attimo e cerchiamo di capirci. Cerchiamo di risolvere i problemi dell'America, all'italiana

Jul 14, 2020 4266 ITA ENG

We the Italians hate racism and condemns with all possible severity the murder of George Floyd by four policemen who abused their authority and disgraced the uniform they wear. That said, and reiterated with all possible strength and conviction, we stand with those wearing a uniform, which in the vast majority defend the weakest and protect the innocent, risking their lives.

That is why we are happy to be able to offer the story of another excellence that Italy has given to the United States, and this time the protagonist of our interview is actually one of those who wear a uniform and protect people. But Anna Tornello is much more than that, as you can understand by reading this interview. I must admit, I was very moved by Anna's many incredible talents and her immense love for our country and pride in being Italian.  It seems to me that Anna perfectly represents the concept that the meeting between Italy and America gives life to the perfect storm and wonderful results: and I thank her so much for brightening my days and I'm sure it will be the same for you as well

Anna, you were born in Rome, then you moved to Genoa, and now you are in Connecticut: can you briefly tell us what led you on this path?

My parents moved from Rome to Genoa when I was still a baby, therefore it wasn’t exactly a choice of mine; after that, I moved to Sicily first, then back to Rome for work, and finally to La Spezia, where I was employed as a Municipal Police officer. Eventually I moved to America and I ended up in Connecticut, a very beautiful place, with the most gorgeous foliage colors in Fall.

My father was a police officer, and as you know, children often inherit their parents’ goals and ambitions. Instead, I was more attracted to foreign countries, and I studied languages because I wanted to travel. My first job after high school was flight attendant, and one of my first flights was to New York. I clearly remember my father’s disappointment, as he had applied on my behalf to a selection interview for the State Police Academy. The interview was scheduled for June 16th, the day I would be leaving to New York. Between the Police Academy and New York, I chose the latter, and it took many years to go back to basics: after a relatively long time as flight attendant I changed careers and, after the selection process, I became a Municipal Police officer in Italy. I realized then how much I loved that profession, and how much I loved solving people’s problems. In America I had to start all over again and take a step at a time: I worked as a waitress, then I was a bank teller, I taught piano and voice, and I even worked as a Judicial Marshal, ensuring safety in the courthouses and transporting prisoners. When I finally became a U.S. citizen I applied to become a Police officer. I was sent to the Academy, and I made it, thus going back to my “second” love, as my first love remains Italy.

Are there many Italians, either born in Italy or of Italian origins, in the Connecticut area where you reside?

I have a group of good friends from Italy. For example, my friend Simona Silvestri, from the Apulia region, is a successful woman who works a lot and established herself as the owner of a gelato place in Greenwich, one of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut; we hang out together, and we are like “adoptive sisters” in a foreign country. Funny thing is that the Italian people I became friends with, I met thanks to being a police officer, because I am usually sociable and outgoing, and when I meet somebody who speaks with an accent that I recognize I want to know them better.  I phoned Simona, one evening, because a drunk driver had damaged her mailbox; I immediately recognized the Italian accent, as under the stress of the moment she struggled with the English language. I asked her whether she was from Italy and we started to talk in our mother tongue; this was about 8 or 9 years ago, we are still close and we hang out with common friends.

You are the president of the local Police Union, in Wilton. Three years ago you were the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the history of the Wilton Police department. What does being an Italian, female Police sergeant entail, in today’s America, when so many people have such a negative opinion of law enforcement?

Before answering this question I’d like to tell you a brief story. When I speak English I still have an accent, and there is no way I am going to lose it. In spite of that, my spoken English is grammatically correct, and my written English is even stronger, because I studied the language with the dictionary at hand. I remember one of my first days at the Police Academy here in America, an instructor approached me and, kindly, told me, slowly and clearly enunciating his words: “If you don’t understand something, don’t hesitate to ask. Do – you – understand?”. At the end of the 6 months Academy my score placed me, academically, at the top of my class, and I was the recipient of the prestigious “Luciano award”, for academic accomplishments. On graduation day that instructor came to me and apologetically told me: “I am so sorry for how I came across on your first day here, but you know, because of your accent I thought you might encounter difficulties, but instead you came up at the top of the class… congratulations!”.

Going back to your question, if you had asked me that just a couple of months ago, before all this happened, I would have told you that my experience was extremely positive: of course there are issues, like there are in any workplace; there are the usual struggles between labor and management, but those are the normal struggles that just help us to move forward, and the passion is always bigger than the difficulties. With strong emotion I remember when I was a small child and my father came back home from work, at night, wearing that beautiful uniform of our Italian Police. Every night I would run to him and hug him tight, and then steal his Police hat, which I would then wear for a few instants to do my own “patrol” around the house, until it was time to hang it, at the end of my “duties”, before dinner.

For me, Police has always symbolized family, safety, protection, and respect for authority. Therefore, every time I saw my father, or any other officer in uniform, my first impulse would be of running to them and hug them.

With everything that is currently going on, in spite of my respect for law enforcement and the deeply rooted passion which led me to choose this profession, I find myself doubting about my future, because we don’t know how strong and determined this anti-Police sentiment will be.

I realized how profoundly different is the image I have of the Police, or the perception we might have of law enforcement in Italy, compared to what it appears to be in America. I have a unique vantage point on the situation, having been an officer both in Italy and in the States. In Italy I have never feared that the driver of a vehicle I stopped would pull a gun from under the seat and shoot me as soon as I turned my back. Instead, at the Police Academy here in America I became familiar with “tactics”, and I was taught how to safely stop a car, how to position my body, the dangers of the job, and it was an eye-opener… there is certainly more violence, here, and we need to be prepared.

As of November of last year I was also elected President of the local Police Union, to represent the officers of my Police department. At this time my heart is bleeding, because I work with really high- quality officers and it hurts me a lot to see that, on the wave of an emotion-ridden protest, we are all looked at as racist assassins, and power-hungry abusers. Granted, the protest is in part justified by some wrongs that have been done: there undoubtedly are individuals – and let me underscore “individuals”- that are probably overzealous, to say the least, in their repressive methods when they become involved in confrontations. However, as a good Italian would do, I try to not forget the positive aspect of things, and while the “bad apples” must be eliminated, the majority of the people in my profession have the same passion I have, and it is disheartening to find all of us as the objects of this strong animosity.

I am doing my part, and I am working with committees of Industrial/Organizational psychologists to look at our training standards, our practices and procedures, and our selection protocols to try to understand what we can do to improve our work environment and rebuild that trust that I feel we deserve, perhaps even bring back that level of trust that I had in law enforcement at the time my father was alive, the trust that many of us might still have in our Italian Police.

In the context of a movement that places a focus on diversity, being Italian for me is a reason for pride: I feel that here there is an excessive standardization of practices, which in my opinion, might work when the situation at hand fits the “parameters”, but when we need to relate to real people, things can go really wrong. To me every person has his/her own individuality, uniqueness, personality, problems and, above all, a personal story to tell. The ability to listen to people comes from being Italian and makes me extremely proud. In my Police role, as I said before, it has helped me to gain friendships and trust, which has led my coworkers to choose me as their representative, without me asking for it. The greatest compliment they gave me: “You are annoying because you are precise, but you are fair”. My father and my being Italian taught me that. I wish Italians were prouder of who they are because, I might be biased, but… nobody can beat us!

What do you think should be done to improve the current social climate in America and rebuild the trust between law enforcement and the public?

In my opinion we need to learn to seriously listen, instead of accusing and forcing our interlocutors to defend themselves. I got to train with the FBI in hostage negotiations, which taught me to build rapport with people who are experiencing a crisis. The solutions are already within us; the negotiator buys time and listens to the person in crisis, so that the solutions emerges as a natural consequence.

Individuals in crisis (and this is a period of intense crisis), experience heightened emotions, and when the emotions run hot it is not a good time to make decisions. So, to bring the situation back to an “almost” normal level, between Covid19 and the social unrest, we must wait. Injustice angers me too, and I was quite upset when I saw the images that everybody saw. But we all need to cool off and ensure our emotions are back to a level that does not interfere with our ability to converse and, above all, to listen to each other.

“Bad apples” are in every profession: there are bad officers as there are bad people in general, but the vast majority of officers are good-hearted people, not criminals, and I don’t feel they’re biased against minorities. The “bad apples” must be removed to gain the public’s trust. But standing at the opposite sides of a barricade, “us versus them”, won’t work. We all belong to the same community, so let’s sit at the same table and talk, but let’s be ready to listen too, to better understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.

There are stereotypes that have become too common: Police officers labeled as racist, murderers, or abusers, and minority members labeled as thugs and rioters... It is not a true representation of reality and I do not accept it. Stereotypes are a defense mechanism: in the face of ambiguous situations the mind has a tendency to take shortcuts. Emotions and stress diminish our ability to reason, and we act based on impulses, feelings and memories we have experienced long time before; under these circumstances, we end up interacting with our past experiences rather than with the person who is currently in front of us. Let’s stop for one moment and try to understand each other. I always encourage the free but civil expression of opinions and emotions, so that I can better understand the story behind the person.

I came to America with the strong desire to learn more about humanity. In Italy we are (or were) all pretty much the same, white and catholic. In New York I discovered the subway, the meeting point of people of all colors, of diverse talents, from all over the world. I would stay on a train for long stretches of time, fascinated by the sound of the different languages I heard, because diversity is a beautiful thing, and my heart aches at the thought it has turned into a reason for hatred, instead. We complement each other. It would be so wonderful if we could all recognize each other’s different talents and use them in the pursuit of a common purpose. In college I learned how America was often compared to a “melting pot”, which gave me the idea of a big pot where the ingredients blend to the point where one cannot recognize the individual flavors. I wasn’t fond of that definition, and I later learned what I feel is a more appropriate description of America: a “salad bowl”, where we can still recognize every single ingredient, like the lettuce, the olives, the tomatoes, and every piece is different from the others, but together they make a harmonious, unparalleled mix of flavors.

Your perspective might be more open, or at least different, from that of your coworkers who were born in America. Among other things, you were also tasked with the training of Police recruits. Is there anything in your past in Italy, before you moved to America, that might have prepared you for the difficult role you chose?

Coming from Italy, and especially joining the Police department, I realized how different is the Italians’ relationship with the “rules”. In fact, during the first years in my department, I gained the reputation of being “argumentative”, because I was unable to remain quiet when I thought something did not make sense. Clearly, this attitude is totally counterproductive within a strong hierarchical structure, such as a Police department. However, in my opinion the ability to rationally analyze rules and to think about what we do is a positive attribute. And I learned it in Italy, in school, when they taught us to write compositions, and to analyse and interpret poems, to teach us to use our own brain and to “read between the lines”, to interpret and to create. Critical thinking seems to be seldom encouraged, in American schools, while I feel that constructive criticism is the propelling force towards improvement.

As a mentor, contrarily to what others did with me, I encourage the exchange of perspectives, and I always say: “Do not blindly trust me, but go and see for yourself. Not because I am not trustworthy, but because you need to be independent and able to figure out your own solutions, even if I am here to help and guide you”. This is the only way to build future leaders. As a sergeant, I am always happy when officers reason and ask questions. I love people who are not afraid to say what they think, as long as they do so civilly and respectfully. Blind obedience can be detrimental, as we have come to realize in the incident that led to the death of Floyd, in Minneapolis. I owe this “forma mentis”, this attitude, to my father, who has always encouraged critical thinking and turned me into a child who always ended up having an answer, and the last word on everything. I owe a lot to my father, and I proudly hold him in my heart wherever I go.

You have been the recipient of numerous awards and letters of commendation, along with several recognitions, and you also hold a Master’s Degree in Industrial/Organizational psychology, which in Italy would be known as “Psicologia Industriale”. What is it, exactly?

In essence, it is the science that makes the workplace a better place to be. It is the science-based approach to the balance between the employer’s interests and the employees’ well-being. Its applications range from the selection of employees that are most likely to succeed in the organization, to the protocols and procedures that promote productivity. For example, different arrangements of the furniture, or the choice of colors, may stimulate creative thinking. I/O psychology is a rapidly growing field, and it is fascinating in its application of science to the workplace. I currently also teach group dynamics as part of the Public Safety Administration curriculum at an online college.

I left a unique treat for last: to contradict the myth of the ruthless and insensitive cop, you are an opera singer. I don’t know of many other cops in America, or in the rest of the world, for that matter, who can lead a Police Union and sing a Puccini aria...

True. I have always had a strong passion for piano and voice, and I was lucky enough my parents found a school we could afford. And my father, he would often sit at the piano and strum the notes of “Taps”, with two fingers, with such an emotion that you could see he was going back in time... I also remember how much he loved the Ave Maria by Schubert. I studied piano, choral music, Gregorian chant, and choir conduct, and in the end I decided I wanted to be a soloist. I brought my dream with me to America, and I immediately started to look for local teachers. I met a wonderful teacher, an older woman with unparalleled strength of mind, Antonia Lavanne, also Master Teacher at the prestigious “Mannes” school of music, in Manhattan. Antonia was a Hungarian Jew who was forced to seek asylum in Israel during the war. This woman had incredible tenacity, energy, and appreciation for life, to the point where she continued to give lessons during her very last days at the hospital. From her I learned persistence, and to never give up. She helped me a lot when I had financial difficulties by offering me free lessons, saying it was a scholarship, because she wanted to help talented people, just as others had helped her. Thus she inspired me to help those who have dreams, because there is so much joy in watching a flower bloom, knowing you helped it to sprout.

And art, as well, has helped me to find good friendships. Again, thanks to being an officer I met a lady who is also a great pianist, and we did charity concerts together in the town where I work. It was fun to read on the posters: “Erica Feidner accompanies Anna Tornello, police officer and award winning soprano”. People came to see the concert to see if that was true. One day, long after the concerts, I stopped a car for a traffic violation; there was a young child in the car, and the lady at the wheel, who recognized me from the concerts, immediately said: “You are the singer, can you sing a song to my child?” It was wonderful! Art and work intersect: every year I sing at the 9/11 memorial service organized by our local Fire Department.

I have no idea how you can accomplish all you do, and so successfully... how much of what you do so well depends on your being Italian?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know whether I would be different if I were born in America. But I often hear the question, from my American friends: “How can you do all of those things?”, therefore perhaps being Italian accounts for it. In spite of everything I read about what happens in Italy, these days, my italian pride is still huge: I know you, I know who you are, my sweet, brave Italy!

In my opinion, though, it’s not only about being Italian, but also having been a teenager in the 80’s. I don’t think I would be the same person if I were born in this exceedingly technological society, where human connections are so rare. I am one of those people who “hug” when they meet somebody, and the restrictions of Covid19 to me are a nightmare! In my opinion, those of us who grew up in the 80’s appreciate the beauty of life, the flavor of true friendship, the value of family. And having a father from Sicily, mother from Rome, my maternal grand-parents from Umbria, growing up in Genoa, living in La Spezia, with an uncle in Tourin, therefore getting to know a good chunk of Italy before my “international” move, was a formative experience.

I moved around a bit in the States as well, from Florida, to Long Island, and eventually in Connecticut, but being italian has helped me to never feel alone; because when people learn you are italian, they smile and talk to you, and often enough they try to “steal” some secret recipe... I am lucky.

You grew up in Genoa, the birthplace of Cristopher Columbus. In these difficult times, criminals have vandalized several statutes in the United States: in Waterbury, Connecticut, one was decapitated, nonetheless. What do you think of these attacks to Colombus, and the fact that they are perpetrated in the name of the cause against racism?

Even at risk of being harshly criticized, I believe that history is history, it happened in the past. Why should we be angry at Columbus, now? He paved the path to America. Narratives about Columbus trading slaves or committing a number of atrocities have not been unanimously confirmed. And how can we judge events is such a remote past based on standards and moral values that are applicable today? Then we should look at christianity too and see how it was divulged through the Crusades, warriors who invaded territories and violently attacked those who refused to convert. So, should we take down all the crosses too? There have been many occurrences in our past that were accepted because they were judged with different moral standards, or they would have been condemned then too.

Columbus opened the way to a land and to resources that could not be found elsewhere. Nuclear power  was discovered with a good purpose in mind, but then it was turned into a weapon of mass destruction. Should we denigrate the scientists who discovered the power of nuclear fission because of Hiroshima?

Let’s leave the people of the past in the past they belong to, let’s thank them for teaching us also what not to do, and let’s build a brighter future.

They have destroyed statues that were pieces of art, and as an artist I feel that art is sacred and should not be touched, even when it represents something we might not like. History serves us as a reminder, and is our best teacher, therefore, to me, the desecration of symbols and memories from history without regard to whatever little positives they might have brought to society is a sign of intolerance and close-mindedness. I do not agree with it.


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