Police chief develops strategy to curb violence

murders
Photo by Colin Ross.

It was no ordinary swearing-in ceremony.

On April 5, New Haven welcomed its new police chief, Frank Limon, with demands that he curb the long spate of unsolved murders that had swept the city.

The violence picked up in October and peaked the weekend before Limon’s arrival. Just after midnight on April 3, Kenneth Bagley, 31, was shot to death in his car in the Dwight-Chapel neighborhood. The next afternoon, on Easter Sunday, 18-year-old Radcliffe Deroche was shot in the back of the head while riding on an ATV in the Newhallville neighborhood.

“I inherited this murder situation,” Limon said. “I walked into this situation with zero murders solved.”

His predecessor, James Lewis, who now heads the Yale Police, declined to comment for this story.

Limon’s swearing-in ceremony turned into an impromptu community meeting at which residents called for the new chief take control of the situation. But Limon had no immediate answers for the crowd, saying he needed to learn more about the New Haven community before deciding on a plan to deal with the violence.

In the last few months, he has developed such a plan. So far, it has met with some success, which has left city and community officials hoping the police can finally turn around New Haven’s persistent problem with violent crime.

The NHPD has made arrests in four of the nine murders that have occurred in Limon’s first six months on the job, an improvement over the department’s record for the preceding three months: zero for seven.

Still, of the 23 murders since October, police have made arrests in only four of the cases. All but one of the 23 murder victims have been black men.

As Limon reorganizes the police force to improve its murder investigations, he said the department’s murder closure rate remains far from acceptable.

The national murder closure rate is 64 percent. Since last October, New Haven’s is 18 percent. Overall, it’s 28 percent, compared to 50 in Bridgeport, Conn., and 33 in Hartford.

“Our goal is a 110 percent arrest rate for murders—arresting not only those responsible, but those conspiring to commit murder before they do it,” Limon said.

SUBPAR PERFORMANCE

The failure of police to make arrests for violent crime can trigger future violence, Limon said. Unless police hold murderers accountable, the cycle of violence continues, he said.

Assistant Chief Thomas Wheeler Jr., head of the investigations division, said lack of evidence and witnesses are the chief obstacles police face when building successful murder cases for prosecution. There is a difference between figuring who committed a crime and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

“We take our time,” he said. “Because we only get to tries [murder] cases once.”

Wheeler said the investigations are often difficult and prolonged because many are narcotics-related and occur in neighborhoods where residents are reluctant to cooperate with police, adding that delays at the state forensics lab certainly don’t speed things along.

Limon said the NHPD’s detectives are currently reviewing older homicides and searching for any untapped leads.

Still, New Haven is not the only Connecticut city whose murder closure rate is far below the national average. Bridgeport’s murder closure rate was 50 percent for the last fiscal year, and Hartford’s was 33 percent. Last year, New Haven’s was 38 percent.

JUST ANOTHER MURDER?

Last fall a wave of violence swept New Haven’s neighborhoods, leaving community leaders reeling and the NHPD scrambling.

At 3:23 a.m. on Oct. 2, police found 27 year old Willie Richardson, shot in the head, on the couch of his mother’s house on Orchard and Elm Streets, just four blocks West of Pierson College.

Five days later, 20 year old Maurice Earls was shot to death in the hallway of a house in the Newhallville neighborhood, three and a half blocks Northwest of Yale Divinity School.

By Christmas, four more men had been murdered. Three were shot to death and a fourth stabbed 11 times inside the popular Crown Street nightclub Synergy, one block from Old Campus.

As the violence continued into the New Year, claiming two more lives, local leaders had a crisis on their hands. At meetings with top police officials in January, community leaders demanded the NHPD contain the violence.

In early January, the New Haven police turned to the FBI for help. Early in the morning on Jan. 12, 45 NHPD detectives and officers raided the areas where the murders had occurred, arresting nine on 15 outstanding arrest warrants, which the department had identified using FBI software.

The New Haven chief at the time, now the head of Yale Police, James Lewis, said the raid was conducted to gather intelligence on the unsolved murders. But despite the arrests, no visible progress was made in the murder cases.

Nevertheless, for more than a month after the raids, the city was murder-free, and police were hopeful that raid had sent a message that the situation was under control.

The quiet was shattered on Feb. 23, when police found 18 year old Robert Smith with a gunshot to the head, lying face-down in a Lloyd Street driveway in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood. Police had no witnesses and no suspects.

Police still had not solved any of the murders, and that message gets out to the streets, Timoney said.

“There is a very informal communications network among criminals,” Timoney said. “Word travels very fast and when police fail to do something, it emboldens them.”

Then on March 7, several blocks from Pierson College, Andre Jackson, 39, was killed after an armed assailant chased him down George Street and shot him multiple times in the head and chest. Two days later, Jeffrey Jones, 43, was cut down by a volley of 19 bullets in the Hill neighborhood, south of the medical school.

The following weekend, 33-year-old Shawn Alexander was found slumped in the driver’s seat of a beige Lexus, the engine still running, the wipers still moving. He had been shot multiple times, at least once in the head. His passenger, Jayson Roman, 28, had fled the car and run the three blocks to St. Raphael’s Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds in his left arm and wrist.

The NHPD continues to investigate cases like Smith’s, but with just 16 detectives in the Major Crimes Unit, which investigates not only homicides, but shootings and other serious felonies, it has a lot on its plate.

The more unsolved crimes there are, the fewer the resources that can be devoted to each.

Limon said the city’s detectives have a heavy workload, but not one disproportionate to what detectives in similarly sized departments carry.

CULTURE OF INDIFFERENCE

Many of the victims and culprits are a part of a criminal world in which cooperation with the police in any form is not tolerated, police say, and the “no snitching” culture is strong in the neighborhoods where the crimes have occurred.

For example, Alexander and Roman both had drug convictions and, after being released from the hospital, Roman was sentenced to 15 months in prison for violating his parole. Even though Roman witnessed Alexander’s murder, police have not made an arrest in the case.

Pastor Eldern Morrison of the Varick A.M.E. Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue said residents often know crucial information, but don’t come forward because they don’t trust the police.

“As I look out on my congregation of 500 every week, I know somebody knows something,” Morrison said. “They just need the right person to talk to.”

Morrison said the lack of public attention is also a problem.

“You know the message that sends when there’s no spotlight on these crimes?” Morrison said. “That it’s unimportant, that, frankly, the people are unimportant. And that breeds more violence.”

Though local newspapers ran several stories about the crime spree, the area’s television stations broadcast only few short news clips, and the killing spree in Connecticut’s second-biggest city has never been mentioned by the national networks or crime-focused cable shows.

Media attention often prompts people to come forward with important tips or clues about the murders, and also puts pressure on the police to solve them, said

Bishop Theodore L. Brooks, pastor of New Haven’s Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church and a member of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, said the limited public attention to the murders is at least partly responsible for the NHPD’s failure to make arrests in the cases.

“The murders of poor African-Americans in our society don’t merit attention,” he said “It is a tragic shame in American society.”

THE TIPPING POINT

By April, the violence had reached a “tipping point,” Limon said. Just after midnight on April 3, Kenneth Bagley, 31, was shot to death in his car in the Dwight-Chapel neighborhood. The next afternoon, on Easter Sunday, 18 year old Radcliffe Deroche was shot in the back of the head while riding on an ATV in the Newhallville neighborhood.

Limon was sworn in as the city’s police chief the next day, and his swearing-in ceremony turned into an impromptu community meeting at which residents demanded the new chief take control of the situation. At the time Limon said he needed to learn more about the New Haven community before unfurling a plan to deal with the violence.

On April 8, police found the body of Jerry Atkins, 59, inside a trash can in Newhallville. He had been stabbed to death and wrapped in plastic. On April 10, New Haven police responded to multiple gunshots fired around 4:15 a.m. in the Dixwell neighborhood and found New Haven resident Kenneth Thomas, 29, gunned down at 43 Charles St. Thomas died in an area hospital later in the day. That evening around 8 p.m., 19-year-old Tywan Q. Turner dashed into the Dixwell Mini Market, trying to evade his armed pursuer, but was shot dead.

Two more men were killed in May: Edmund Jackson, 25, was shot in the chest at close range within earshot of police officers stationed outside Humphrey’s Bar near downtown, and on May 25 Troy Perry, 27, was shot in the leg in the Malcolm Court housing project across from Union Station. The bullet hit an artery and Perry bled to death in a stairwell.

But May also brought the NHPD’s first arrest since the violence began in October. Six weeks after the Easter Sunday murder, police arrested the man they believe is responsible.

If Limon’s strategy proves successful, murders will be followed by arrests.

“We should solve every one of those murders,” Limon said.

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