In a world filled with criminal “bad boys,” action-hero policemen zoom around in high-speed car chases, break into houses and jump out of helicopters onto the tops of fleeing cars.
Though academia and popular culture often see the police force as highly masculinized, action-hungry and dissatisfied with “community work,” the realities of policing in New Haven are largely removed from this mindset, according to psychologist Arnold Holzman. Holzman administers pre-employment psychological evaluations to those applying to be law enforcement officers. On Tuesday, Holzman sat down with the New Haven Police Commission and explained the process of evaluation, which he said aims to assess a candidate’s levels of stress toleration, psychopathy and substance abuse, as well as traits more oriented to community work, such as interpersonal skills.
From Holzman’s point of view, quality policing requires much of the latter.
“A good police officer is someone who tends to be very oriented towards improving their community and enjoy the opportunity to relate to people and interact with people,” he said. “They feel good when they feel like they’ve helped in even small ways.”
But some criminology specialists, such as Yale professor Philip Smith, question the prevalence of this altruistic attitude among officers. According to Smith, certain groups of policemen are not only highly aggressive, but also enter the force expecting to take on exciting cases. They may draw a distinction between ‘real policing’ with dramatic criminal situations, and ‘soft policing’ with community work, he said.
“Social science research has repeatedly shown that a police culture exists,” he said. “This is relatively invariant around the world. It involves stereotyping, masculinity, deference to authority and suspicion.”
But according to Holzman, applicants to the New Haven Police Department do not fit this broad characterization.
In his dealings with candidates for the police force, Holzman said, many applicants — a majority of whom are young — seek to enter with the intention of instigating change in the community rather than excitement or glory.
“More and more of what I see is people coming from a human services orientation,” he said. “When I ask them what they want to do, a common response is ‘I want to help people.’ When I ask them what their other career options were, they say teaching, social work or many other similar jobs.”
Since 1990, the NHPD has made an effort to focus more on community policing, a style of law enforcement in which police officers patrol routine areas on foot, horses or bicycles.
Police and city officials said that in contrast with reactive 911 policing, the visibility of police officers in the community allows for more accessibility and communication between citizens and law enforcement.
“If the community thinks you are a foreign occupying force looking to give everybody a hard time, there’s just a negative reaction to that,” Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield said. “Ideally, the police aren’t viewed as strangers from outside.”
Police Commission member Bishop Theodore Brooks, who has lived in New Haven since 1950, said he has always appreciated when police become involved in the community and get to know residents and children personally.
But Brooks and Police Commission chief Richard Epstein both contend that the effectiveness of New Haven’s community policing could benefit from an increase in the number of officers in the community.
Epstein said the NHPD is currently operating 60 officers below its capacity, although the annual recruitment drive ended late October.
“I would like to see the city to be able to afford to bring the department to the level so that we can put police back out on the beat and we can fulfill our jobs and obligations,” Brooks said. “Do we have enough officers on the force to do the job? Yes. Can we use more? Absolutely.”
In order to deploy more officers, Brooks said, the city needs higher tax revenues. The NHPD is currently funded by revenue from various taxes, including gas, car and property taxes.
As it will take time to obtain the funding needed to increase the police force, Brooks said, citizens can help improve community policing efforts by teaching children to respect law enforcement in order to cultivate a more positive image of the police officers.
“We need to support our officers,” he said. “I think when children and parents show [police officers] respect, and we show respect, then we have less tension … The officers are not our enemy.”