City cannot afford to lose footing on crime

New Haven, we are told again and again, is a far different city than it was in the early 1990s. A once-moribund downtown area attracts new shops every month. City Hall touts a list of dramatic changes in the city’s fiscal situation, and the city’s business leaders points to their success in creating jobs.

Yet perhaps no accomplishment has held more importance for New Haven than a steady decline in crime. In the decade from 1993 to 2003, the crime rate dropped by 58 percent. While New Haven earned national headlines in 1991 for the tragic shooting of Yale sophomore Christian Prince, 10 years later, it was gaining notice for the success of its “community policing” approach to stopping crime.

In recent months, however, it is hard not to see a step backward. In 2004, New Haven’s crime rate rose for the second consecutive year, and homicides nearly doubled compared to 2003. In late March, the city saw four shootings and a violent brawl on the Green in just a single weekend. City officials say this year’s statistics are no worse than last year’s, but that is little consolation for city residents increasingly worried about violence in their neighborhoods.

Just as troubling is the growing discontent with the New Haven Police Department. The fatal shootings of three men by city police in just over six months have sparked criticism of the department’s use of force. The department has responded with new training programs for officers, but neighborhood outcry has revealed a deeper sense of dissatisfaction with the force. And with a recent vote of no confidence in NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz by the city’s police union, residents see a department facing dissension in its own ranks, too.

Policing a city like New Haven is no easy task, and it is too early to tell whether the recent spike in crime is more than an anomaly. But the growing sense of unease with safety in the city cannot be taken lightly. From Fair Haven, the site of a shooting last Friday, to Edgewood Avenue, where a Yale senior was assaulted a few days earlier, a sense of safety is central to New Haven’s overall well-being. As he embarks on his race for governor, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. rightly takes pride in the city’s overall record on crime in since he took office in 1994. But if residents lose faith in the city’s dedication to maintaining a police force that is both effective and responsible, the successes reflected in that record could be lost. And that diminished confidence could pose serious ramifications not only for DeStefano’s political career, but for the city’s economic vitality and the University’s desirability as well.

The challenge the city faces is continuing to reassure us that New Haven is a safe place — a place where families can feel comfortable buying homes and raising their children, where businesses are confident they are moving into a secure area and where students don’t fear for their well-being when they stray a few blocks from campus. In the last 15 years, New Haven has gotten safer — but these days, that’s getting a little harder to see.

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