City crime hits 20-year low

Despite the high-profile murder of Annie Le GRD ’13 and the string of shootings at the beginning of this year, 2009 was New Haven’s safest year on record, New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said Thursday at his last press conference as chief.

The city saw a 10 percent decrease in crime and 1,000 fewer victims of serious crimes (which include murder, assault and theft), Lewis said. The crime rate, based on the New Haven Police Department’s statistics, is the lowest since the city started keeping official records in 1990. Former Ward 10 Alderman Allan Brison and other community leaders have said a spurt of violence at the end of last year proved that police tactics needed to change, but Lewis maintained at the press conference that those critics are missing the big picture.

New Haven crime rates, 2008 to 2009
New Haven crime rates, 2008 to 2009

Lewis is set to depart the NHPD by the end of February, and he said he hopes his successor continues to implement and improve the policies he has established. Richard Epstein, chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, said after the press conference that the new chief is expected to be selected within a month and most likely by the end of February. Although Lewis did not name any candidates at the press conference, he said the candidates currently being considered have “a record of outstanding policing, probably better than my own.”

At the press conference, Lewis attributed the reduction in crime to his targeted activity policing strategy, which seeks to eliminate sources of major crimes in high-risk neighborhoods.

“All it took was basic simple policing,” he said. “We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just allowed officers to focus on making the city safer.”

One example of Lewis’s aggressive strategies is what he called “lighting up the night.” Immediately after a shooting occurs, police flood the neighborhood with officers, who stop and search as many vehicles in the area as possible. Lewis said the efforts allow police to seize many guns and encourage drivers to obey traffic laws.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. also spoke at the press conference, saying he was grateful to Lewis and the police for their achievements. But despite the mayor’s praise, some community leaders questioned the policing strategy.

In the last several months of 2009, seven black males were shot and killed in the city, many of them shot execution-style, in the back or front of the head. Police mounted a major raid in the areas where the murders took place, looking for leads and information, but they have yet to solve any of the murders.

Local social justice organizations such as People Against Injustice and the Brotherhood Leadership Summit and even a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, Bishop Theodore Brooks, questioned whether the city has done enough to prevent the violence. Two aldermen said Lewis had strayed from community policing, which they said they define as patrolling the streets and building cordial relationships with the community.

Brison has said that Lewis’s tactics “have ushered in a new mistrust of the police among New Haven youth which did not exist 10 years ago.”

In response, Lewis said at the press conference that his critics should focus on the broader picture and that he would not change his strategies whenever crime saw a short-term increase just to gain political favor. He maintained that he is a firm believer in community policing, which he said is aggressive crime targeting that encourages residents to reach out to the police. He added that crime has continued to drop this year, with 44 percent fewer shootings so far.

But although murder was down 48 percent to 12 total in 2009, the number of murders was only one fewer than in 2007 because of a spike in 2008. Lewis said that although it is possible for the city to have a murder rate in the single digits, “it will require a lot of work.”

When Lewis arrived in the summer of 2008, there were a number of problems plaguing the department, and few had wanted his current job. One of the biggest obstacles he faced was the 2007 police narcotics scandal, in which the head of the narcotics unit and two of his detectives were convicted in federal court for corruption. (The unit’s leader was sentenced in May 2008 to 38 months in federal prison.) Though DeStefano disbanded the police unit at the time, Lewis instituted a new narcotics team in 2009 that he says has been following his aggressive strategies. Eight members of the narcotics team, known as the Tactical Narcotics Unit, along with one of their drug-sniffing dog, were at Thursday’s press conference to show support for Lewis.

Of eight Yalies interviewed Thursday night, three said they were surprised about the low crime statistics.

But one student, Serrena Iyer ’12, said the record-low statistics do not come as a shock to her because she believes major crimes get more publicity. The four other students said they did not have an opinion about the statistics.

Yale’s crime statistics for the 2009-’10 academic year will be released by University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith, who oversees Yale security, to the Yale Corporation in April.

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