They turned out in droves, 200 strong, gathered in the center of a neighborhood ravaged by a recent streak of deadly violence. And as they waited for the mayor and police chief, they grew restless.
People scrounged to find spare seats in the East Rock Elks Lodge on Webster Street on Thursday night; others stood or waited in the hall. The crowd continued to swell, and their patience wore thinner. Religious readers took the stage, preaching about the importance of solidarity in this time of turmoil, and some in the audience responded with cries of “Amen!”
Since January, 11 men have been murdered in the city, three in the past week, just two short of the total murder toll for all of 2009. All were black men, most were ex-cons in their late 20s or older. And all of the murders remain unsolved.
Responding to the outcry, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and newly sworn-in Police Chief Frank Limon promised to attend the public meeting Thursday evening, organized by community leader Rev. Scott Marks. But by 7:30 there was still no sign of DeStefano and Limon, and shortly thereafter someone from the crowd called out, “Where is the mayor?”
He finally arrived around 7:50, coming straight from the train station, returning from a trip to Washington to discuss the city’s grant applications with members of Congress. City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said DeStefano was scheduled to arrive at 7:30 and came slightly later due to train delays. Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans called DeStefano and Limon’s tardiness “disrespectful.”
When they did take the floor, DeStefano said there are more guns on New Haven’s streets than there have been in its recent history and that an older criminal population is perpetrating more murders. He emphasized his support for Limon, who took office last week and has some 30 years of experience fighting narcotics and gangs.
Faced with an angry resident who said there was hostility between police and the community, Limon said, “We do have to improve communication, and we can’t do this overnight.”
Limon said his plan to flood New Haven’s highest crime area with additional officers, “Operation Corridor,” will reduce crime and that he hopes to build trust between the NHPD and the community.
“It’s just like starting a relationship with a person,” he said.
Still the crowd spoke passionately about the violence’s effect on the community and said it is the community’s responsibility as much as the government’s to stop the violence. Community activist Shelton Tucker said the black community has to step up both its social and political participation if it hopes to stem the violence. He said the city’s political leaders, especially the mayor, are not beholden to listen to the black community’s needs because its members do not turn out to vote.
“Take your arguments to the polls,” he said. “If we don’t care about us, no one will.”
In a brief address, Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans said those present should join the committees that community leaders are establishing to address violence in the city.
Still, some residents said they emerged from the meeting with optimism. City resident Paul Hammer SOM ’85, president of the Bicycle Education, Entrepreneurship, and Enrichment Programs, said he hopes the support the community showed Thursday night will finally make progress against the violence. He said efforts to combat the violence have to be continuous and not fade away to have real impact.
“Will these murders finally wake up the community and keep it awake?” he asked.