New Haven is on track to have one of the lowest murder rates in the last 20 years, but not all city residents are convinced the police are using the right tactics.
The problem, residents say, is that police no longer patrol neighborhoods on foot — there are no more cops “walking the beat.” Instead, since New Haven Police Chief James Lewis took his post in 2008, the department has implemented a more aggressive strategy known as “targeted activity policing.”
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“There was a time in this city when criminals were comfortable carrying illegal guns,” Lewis said in an interview earlier this month. “Now we’re trying to make that real uncomfortable for them.”
Unlike foot patrols, which Lewis said only shift crime from one area to another, the new strategy looks to confront it head-on and reclaim dangerous neighborhoods for good. He explained that foot patrols tend to scare off criminals from the immediate area whereas targeted policing results in the arrest of some criminals and the deterrence of others.
At an October neighborhood safety meeting in Newhallville, Lewis presented statistics indicating a steady drop in crime in Newhallville and across the entire city, a decrease he attributed to his approach. But Ward 10 Alderman Allen Brison, along with five other of the meeting’s attendees, said he was not convinced.
The new tactics “have ushered in a new mistrust of the police among New Haven youth which did not exist 10 years ago,” Brison said.
Fifteen Newhallville residents at the meeting said that in the past, they felt safer when they saw a beat cop daily and could speak to the officer as a friend.
But three high-ranking police department officials interviewed said while foot patrols may have made some residents feel more secure, the department’s current tactics have produced more concrete results that benefit the entire city. Lewis and NHPD Assistant Chief for Operations Kenneth Gillespie explained that the only thing foot patrols do to actually affect crime is displace it to another neighborhood.
“What we saw with foot patrols is that crime would move, but it would be just two blocks over,” Lewis said. “It never went away.”
MANY THINGS TO MANY PEOPLE
When it comes to the relative merits of police tactics, city residents and the police department have different visions of how police officers should interact with the community.
Community members say officers should do the sort of “community policing” that was popular in cities across America during the 1990s. Community policing generally involves officers developing relationships with a community and using them to resolve problems and reduce crime.
The current debate of what community policing entails in New Haven is exemplified on the police department’s Web site, which says that “community policing is many things to many people.” For the New Haven Police Department, it is the broader, more aggressive strategy.
Gillespie said that one of the easiest ways to create a hostile environment for criminals is through aggressive traffic stops.
“People preying on our community have one thing in common: They have to use the public roadways” he said.
Police have found that when traffic stops are more frequent, they have been able to reduce the flow of drugs and guns around the city, Gillespie said.
For example, in late October police officers pulled over a car because it had tinted windows, NHPD spokesman Joe Avery said. When the driver tried to flee, the police tased him and discovered he was carrying 57 bags of crack cocaine.
In addition, this past Tuesday, police pulled over a vehicle because it failed to use its turning signal. Officers ended up finding 71 packets of crack cocaine and over $400 in cash.
Gillespie said such incidents occur every week to the point where local criminals fear driving through New Haven. Indeed, he said the tactics have made such an impression on criminals that police officials from other cities in Connecticut have told him that gang members refuse to drive through New Haven because they fear the city’s vigilant police.
He added that traffic stops show both law abiders and breakers that police are proactively seeking out crime.
This year, Lewis said, police have confiscated over 250 illegal firearms and New Haven has seen a 10 percent reduction in total crimes reported. Moreover, New Haven had no murders this summer for the first time in 20 years. Over the last three years, the city has averaged just under 20 murders per year. At last count, there have been just eight homicides in 2009.
Nevertheless, many city residents said they are not convinced they are safer.
“Community policing doesn’t exist in New Haven, and it hasn’t for a long time” said community activist Barbara Fair of People Against Injustice, a New Haven-based criminal-justice reform agency. She said during the 1990s police actually developed relationships with the people they protected.
In 1990 New Haven struggled with a crack cocaine epidemic and had over 21,000 reported crimes, including 31 murders. At the time, the newly appointed police chief, Nicholas Pastore, implemented programs to keep the youth away from criminal activity and reached out to community leaders and residents. Fair said many city residents believe Pastore’s biggest contribution was mandating that police officers walk the streets and become fixtures in the city’s neighborhoods.
Pastore’s policies were a radical shift from those of the late 1980s, when groups of officers known as “beat-down posses” would regularly arrive unannounced in areas of the city and rough up anyone they thought looked suspicious. During Pastore’s seven-year tenure, New Haven’s crime rate decreased by about a third.
“After the beat-down crews Pastore made you feel like you were actually living in a free country,” Fair said. “He made us feel like he actually cared about the community.”
Current police officials said it was data from the ’90s that convinced them to eliminate foot patrols.
“In the early ’90s, we had plenty of foot patrols,” Gillespie said. “It created a perception that police were present, but the crime rate was still 50 percent higher than it is today.”
Yet, citing the fact that the residents they represent have yet to feel safe or comfortable around the police, each of the four community representatives interviewed questioned whether crime was actually down.
But Lewis said his way of sending a strong message to the residents of New Haven is also community policing.
Instead of relying on foot patrols to spread good will, Lewis said he hopes citizens will instead be satisfied when they see less drug dealing and prostitution and fewer shootings in their streets.
“We are going to send a clear message: we do care,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ contract as police chief expires at the end of January, and he is unlikely to return. It is unclear what the status of community policing will be in New Haven under the next police chief.
In February, the NHPD dropped its “Committed to Community Policing” motto in favor of a new slogan, “Dedicated to Protecting our Community.”