Safety in New Haven: a tale of two cities

Police tape barricaded Amistad St. Monday afternoon and kept reporters and cameramen at a one-block radius.
Police tape barricaded Amistad St. Monday afternoon and kept reporters and cameramen at a one-block radius. Photo by Nick Bayless.

In the wake of the murder of Annie Le GRD ’13, the national media has portrayed New Haven as a very “dangerous” place.

“Right next to the Yale campus, there is a dangerous neighborhood,” a “Today” show reporter said Thursday.

Perception vs. Fact
Reed Reibstein
Perception vs. Fact

“Some say the area around Yale can be a very dangerous area,” an ABC correspondent reported Friday.

But Yale has tried to paint a very different picture.

“It is worth remembering that the city reports that crime in New Haven has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1990,” University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer wrote in an e-mail to the Yale community Saturday.

Even before Le’s killing, students themselves were unsure. In a survey of Yale undergraduates conducted by the News in the three days before the University announced Le’s disappearance, just as many students said they believed New Haven was a safe city as said they believed it dangerous.

Like the similarly jarring murders of students Christian Prince ’91 and Suzanne Jovin ’99, Le’s murder has brought Yale, New Haven and their respective security structures under intense scrutiny.

But as it happens, there is a gulf between perceptions and reality — these incidents are aberrations in an relatively safe college town. Although statistics suggest that New Haven as a whole is still more dangerous than other cities of comparable size, the area around Yale is no more dangerous than those that surround other schools.

Getting Safer

Yale and New Haven’s reputation for being dangerous likely originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack-cocaine made the city an entirely different place. During that time, when the city was the site of a drug war, there were three times as many shootings in the city as there are today.

And Yale’s campus was not as safe either. There were over 1,000 major crimes — including motor-vehicle theft, larceny and rape — on Yale’s campus each year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Crime on campus peaked in 1990 with 1,439 major crimes. The image of a dangerous Yale is epitomized by the murder of Prince, who was fatally shot in the chest on Feb. 17, 1991, on the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue.

“When 19-year-old Christian H. Prince died in an attempted robbery — just a block from the university president’s house — whatever remained of the students’ sense of protection around campus died too,” The New York Times reported two days after the murder in a story headlined: “At Yale, Fear and Anger Join Grief Over Slaying.”

The murder shook the campus: “That was a bad time,” Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith said. “It was a horrible time.”

After the incident, the University spent millions of dollars installing new lights and blue phones and adding security personnel. But, just seven years later, Jovin was fatally stabbed.

“Whenever we see a spike in criminal activity, we look very carefully to make sure the structure of our patrol beats is organized correctly,” University President Richard Levin said in an interview last week before Le’s disappearance. “And at least three times in my presidency, we’ve made significant increases in the staff of police and security personnel to improve safety on campus.”

For a time, the effort appeared to have paid off. In 2008, Yale reported 296 major crimes on campus, one-fifth as many as reported in 1990. And New Haven has followed a similar trend — in 1994, there were 2,648 violent crimes in the city; in 2008, there were just 1,637.

JUST HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?

Despite the drop, the recent numbers do not bode well for New Haven.

In 2007 and 2008 combined, New Haven reported 2,690 violent crimes for every 100,000 residents, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports. This number is comparable to the crime rates in two of Connecticut’s other major cities, Hartford and Bridgeport — 2,377 and 2,338 respectively. (As defined by the FBI, violent crimes include murder, forcible rape, robbery rape and aggravated assault.)

The average U.S. city of comparable size to New Haven had only 1,246 violent crimes per 100,000 residents — less than half as many.

But the fact that New Haven has more reported violent crime than other cities does not necessarily make it more dangerous. Indeed, the FBI discourages ranking cities based off of the FBI crime reports. The purpose of the reports is to give statistics to academics and cities to do research, FBI Unit Chief Stephen Fischer Jr. said.

“A ranking provides no insight into the many variables that mold crime,” Fischer said. “One city might report more crime than another, not because there is more crime, but because one city might be more proactive in investigating and reporting crime.”

And a spokeswoman for the Hartford Police Department, Nancy Mulroy, agreed that numbers only tell part of the story.

“At a glance, it would be fair to say Hartford had fewer violent crimes per 100,000 people, but safety is preserved in different ways,” she said, adding that she would need more information on the nature of the crimes to make a judgment on whether Hartford is safer than New Haven.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

But taking a closer look at the dynamics of New Haven can help explain some of the crime difference, New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis said in an interview earlier this month.

Some cities with lots of office space have a large influx of non-residents during the day. Other cities have a vibrant nightlife, causing a large influx of non-residents at night. In both of these types of cities, the actual number of people in the city — and the number of potential crime victims — is much larger than the reported number of residents. This, Lewis said, artificially inflates the crime rates per capita.

New Haven is somewhat rare because it has a spike both in the day and in the night, a fact that may be responsible for the city’s higher reported crime rate, Lewis explained.

“During the daytime we have a large influx of people into the city because of Yale, because of the hospitals, because of government buildings, the court houses, et cetera,” he said. “At the same time, in the evenings, we have this different population that comes in because we have become something of an entertainment district compared to other cities.”

But even given this dynamic, Lewis said he does not deny that violent crime in New Haven is high relative to other similar cities.

“The reality, based on the stats, is that we do have a large number of street robberies and shootings,” he said.

Neighborhoods with high crime rates form a ring around downtown, Lewis said. Much of the crime in those neighborhoods, he said, is linked to illegal drugs. At the same time, he noted, there is little street crime downtown and around Yale. Almost all incidents in that area are related to intoxicated bar patrons getting into fights, he said.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” he said. “I would argue our downtown is safer than many urban downtowns. But I’d say some of our neighborhoods are more dangerous than many neighborhoods in the country.”

HOW SAFE IS YALE?

Three days before Le’s disappearance was reported to the Yale community, the News sent an online survey to 2,000 undergraduate students regarding their perceptions of safety both at Yale and New Haven, and 720 replied. The results showed that the farther students go from the center of campus, the more unsafe they feel. While only 13 percent of Yale juniors and seniors answered that have ever felt unsafe throughout central campus, 21 percent have felt unsafe on Science Hill, 43 percent have felt unsafe by the medical school and 74 percent have felt unsafe elsewhere in New Haven.

The survey also showed that while 37.5 percent of Yale students who had an opinion think Yale and its surrounding neighborhoods are dangerous or moderately dangerous, less than half as many Yale students surveyed think that Harvard and Brown are as dangerous, despite both being located in cities of comparable size to New Haven.

“I don’t really feel unsafe walking in downtown areas by myself at most any time of the night,” Vann Jarrell ’10 said. “But off campus is a completely different feel.”

Jarrell was over a dozen blocks off campus last summer when he became the victim of an armed robbery.

Quyen Slotznick ’11 also said she feels Yale is generally safe.

“If I for any reason feel uncomfortable walking home,” she said, “I always breathe a sigh of relief once I swipe into my college gates or a Yale building with my Yale ID and the door closes behind me.”

And Ashley Baldwin-Hunter ’11 said she feels “very safe” on campus, particularly during the school year. During the summer, though, she said that Yale “evaporates to a degree, along with the protective bubble it and its student body create, revealing the true nature of New Haven the city.”

Despite Yale students’ trepidation, the statistics show that Yale is no more dangerous than other Ivy League schools.

“When you look at the reported crimes on different college campuses in the Ivy League, we’re not near the top,” Levin pointed out in the interview. “We’re sort of in the middle.”

A CLOSER LOOK

Yale reported 11.7 criminal offences per 1,000 students in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. Harvard University reported the most criminal offenses on campus with 20.5 per 1,000 students.

On the other end, Cornell University reported only 2.7 criminal offences per 1,000 students. And the University of Pennsylvania — which Yale students surveyed thought was the most dangerous Ivy — reported only six criminal offenses on campus per 1,000 students.

All other Ivy League schools reported between 9.6 and 12 criminal offences per 1,000 students.

The goal of the Clery Act — a federal law requiring all colleges and universities to report statistics about crime on campus to the U.S. Department of Education — is to allow students and parents to compare the safety of various schools. The U.S. Department of Education releases a 216-page book telling schools which crimes must be reported and how to classify those crimes.

Still, Highsmith said that different schools — in good faith — interpret the law differently, making comparisons difficult.

“I think there’s a lot of interpretation from campus to campus, particularly in terms of crime like burglary and theft,” Highsmith said. “Campuses that have a police department probably tend to be more strict in terms of classifying something as a burglary as opposed to a theft.”

(In contrast to a theft, which does not need to be reported, a burglary involves trespassing and must be reported.)

The University of Pennsylvania reported only 41 burglaries — only 28 percent of all reported Penn crime — while at every other Ivy League school, burglaries made up at least 65 percent of reported criminal offences. Additionally, Highsmith said schools without their own police departments have to rely on local police to provide them with data, which they may or may not get.

The FBI’s universal crime reports, she added, are better for comparisons because there are fewer judgment calls. But, Highsmith summarized, areas around Yale are very safe.

“We did not have high numbers of robberies and assaults in the areas right around campus,” she said.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

There are signs that as the city gets safer, people’s perceptions of New Haven are changing for the better.

“We all know that there remains a lingering misperception about New Haven among a small, but sometimes vocal number of people ­(i.e., the Harvard Crimson!),” Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said in an e-mail message.

“But the reality of New Haven as a place of choice, a good place to live, work, and study, is recognized by increasing and large numbers of people,” he continued, citing the growing number of people choosing to live, shop and dine downtown.

And while on most tours of campus, prospective students and their parents still ask if New Haven is safe, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 said in an interview before Le went missing that these days, safety does not seem to be a particular concern people have when considering Yale.

The number of students choosing to accept Yale’s offer of admission has increased to 68 percent from 53 percent over the past 15 years. And a record number of students are choosing Yale over Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, indicating that security is not a large concern.

“When we look at students who are admitted to Yale and decide not to come, it used to be that security in New Haven was a major, major factor in the decision,” Levin said in the interview. “That is not the case today.”

And this progress may not be lost as a result of Le’s homicide. While students expressed widespread shock about the crime, most undergraduates interviewed Monday said they believed the murder was an isolated incident that does not change their perceptions of New Haven’s safety.

“I don’t believe that New Haven is any less safe than before,” Stephen Silva ’11 said. “I am not aware of the details of Annie’s death and can’t jump to conclusions, but murder is a crime of passion, an isolated account that, in small quantities, does not affect the overall safety of a particular zone.”

Rather, Silva said, a murder creates an opportunity to reflect on the way we treat and respond to one another.

Other students took a wait-and-see attitude.

“Realistically, I feel that our world, especially at Yale, is much safer than we imagine,” Alex Klein ’12 wrote in an e-mail message. “That said, there is something viscerally terrifying about what happened to Annie Le, which is going to profoundly affect us — psychologically, as a student body — for years to come.”

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