Hawke: A city of broken windows

A couple of weeks ago I sat out in Wooster Park enjoying an evening cigarette when the sound of breaking glass shattered the peace. As a military reservist and former NYPD police officer, my training and instincts led me towards the sound. As I approached, a neighbor, seeing my rush, said, “No worries, not a car break in, just a jerk throwing a bottle.” Thank God, just a jerk.

But this jerk is a symptom of a major problem in New Haven — the residents of our city are losing confidence in the police department. Instead of uniting the citizenry and the department, Chief Limon has further divided us. Just three months ago the police union considered a No Confidence Vote against him. New Havenites have taken to the streets to protest perceived discrimination and police brutality. And worse yet, New Haven is not safe.

Safety is not fully captured by the number of violent offenders arrested, or by crime statistics or tickets written. Safety is a feeling. Safety is going outside for a walk in the evening and not even thinking about getting mugged. Safety is trust in the police department because officers take the time to get to know you instead of listening to an iPod or hiding behind dark shades. It’s hard to feel safe when our only interactions with police are the constant reminders of violence outside our gates through weekly, and sometimes daily, e-mails, dryly informing us of robberies, burglaries, break-ins and you-name-its at the periphery of campus.

Last fall a friend of mine was mugged on Court Street while walking home from work. Three months ago, my roommate’s car was broken into. The police department wouldn’t even send an officer to take the report, but took the information over the phone. Just a month ago another friend awoke to an invader trying to bust down his door in a downtown building. Luckily, the suspect tired and fled after urinating on the hallway floor. And while reports are filed over the phone, remnants of broken auto-glass cover the streets in Wooster Square — New Haven’s very own safe haven.

In 1982, social scientists Wilson and Kelling developed the analogy of “broken windows” to capture the idea that urban decay occurs when citizens feel a neighborhood is unsafe, regardless of statistics. As the theory goes, “if a window is broken and is left unrepaired, all of the rest of the windows will soon be broken… (O)ne unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, so breaking more windows costs nothing.” To avoid major neighborhood crime problems, you start by addressing the little things.

Unfortunately New Haven is a city of broken windows. Walking down Chapel Street on many an evening, I have seen consistent and blatant disregard for common courtesy and the law: individuals openly harass women, threaten shop-owners, and litter entire bags of trash. Motorcyclists do wheelies and racers do burnouts, driving “Grand Theft Auto” style through downtown. While I understand that this may seem petty when there are shootings and stabbings down the road, the answer is not to completely ignore them. Ignoring petty crime results in a culture of hostility that flows through the city. From there, the only remaining check is to create a pseudo-police state in the “entertainment” district on Saturday nights. Why not, instead, pull over the car blaring music three blocks away? You may just catch a felon. I say this as not only a citizen, but as a former police officer who faced similar challenges day-to-day on my beat.

New Haven needs a shift in direction and we need it now. While I support the efforts of our fine officers, I am forced to question the judgment of department leadership. Why use a task force designed to combat violent crime and weapons to raid college dances? Why take reports of break-in and theft over the phone? Why allow officers to work off-duty at construction sites in uniform while reading the newspaper and listening to their iPods, damaging the department’s reputation? We need a strong leader, someone who knows New Haven, is connected to the officers of the department and the New Haven community — someone who offers sound judgment and principles we can all get behind.

Until that leader takes charge, we’re forced to make Limon-ade out of lemons. And it’s up to us, the residents, to look out for each other. Report crime. Stay alert on the streets. And, as my neighbor so rightly said as we passed the broken glass, jerks seem to stay indoors in bad weather. So pray for rain.

Alex Hawke is a sophomore in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney student.


  • Sara

    This column doesn’t describe the New Haven I live in, which is safe, inviting and full of pedestrians , bicyclists and families walking around even at night. Perhaps if people really understood the crime stats, and the fact most areas of the city are no worse than the state average for violent crime rate (which is one of the lowest in the US, far below Massachusetts for example) their perspective would change. I’m not saying that you should wander around the handful of drug dealing areas all night, just being realistic about the typical risk.

    There’s much more to worry about from speeding and disorderly drivers which kill and maim dozens of innocent folks not involved in the drug trade each year, including several Yalies.

    In terms of property crime, sure it may seem you’re more likely to have a bike stolen, etc, but that’s because there are a lot more people and a lot more properties in the city center than there are in lifeless, dead suburbs. I’d take the risk of a broken car window every 10 years over the risk of dying in a fiery crash, which is many times higher in suburban areas.

    That said I do agree that more attention must be paid to issues like property maintenance, broken glass, loud noises and speeding.

  • waldo


    New Haven was recently ranked the 18th most dangerous metropolitan area to live in. So I guess you’re right Sara… we’re safer than St. Louis and Camden, NJ, but unfortunately there’s less per capita crime in Newark.

  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    Sara wrote:
    > This column doesn’t describe the New
    > Haven I live in,

    Ah, that’s it! Sara lives in [New Haven, Vermont][1]! This explains much.

    In any case, while *alt.reality* Sara continues to lament citizens’ ignorance (rather like [certain Democrats lamenting the stupidity of voters][2]) vis-a-vis crime stats, Sara herself displays little familiarity with Hawke’s reference to [Broken Window theory][3], wherein a local-level sense of security becomes a virtuous circle; its opposite, a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see, even when “if people really understood the crime stats,” they still could still be–[or *perceive* they could be][4]–shot, mugged, or otherwise victimized.

    While we may not become outright *prisoners* of fear, we are beholden to fear nonetheless, and (with a hat tip to Sara) alter our realities appropriately (by, e.g., avoiding certain areas, neighborhoods, times, places, activities, etc.)

    Case in point from last weekend:

    > The victim told police he had just
    > left the [Center Street Lounge][5] when he
    > heard a disturbance at the corner of
    > Church and Center Street. He said he
    > saw people running, heard a shot and
    > [***realized he had been struck***][6].

    I am still waiting for Sara to illuminate readers with regard to these oft-referenced (but never observed) “real” crime stats (you know, the ones that “if people really understood” then “their perspectives would change”), and here link again to her previously cited [Harvard SPH “diversity data”][7] for analysis… (The careful reader will note that New Haven’s stats are absent from the list–but perhaps I seek in the wrong spot?)

    As for Hawke’s criticism of New Haven’s “leadership” in community safety, I must agree: We ain’t got no [Billy Brattons][8]!

    P.S. Hawke (what a great name, huh? You can’t buy this stuff) is one of my local heroes, even if, sadly, he is just a token. (“Have you seen our boy, Hawke? Yes, he’s the spokesmodel for our new “diversity of thought” program.”) That said, I darn near have a spiritual crush on the guy: *Always Out Front*, Brother!

    [1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Haven,_Vermont
    [2]: http://michellemalkin.com/2010/09/25/john-kerry-explains-dem-woes-voters-are-stupid/
    [3]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory
    [4]: http://blogs.babble.com/strollerderby/2010/11/22/most-dangerous-cities-in-america/
    [5]: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Center+Street+lounge,+New+Haven,+CT&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=44.658568,77.255859&ie=UTF8&hq=Center+Street+lounge,&hnear=New+Haven,+Connecticut&ll=41.306133,-72.925293&spn=0.010397,0.018861&z=16&cid=10466947173029333184&iwloc=A
    [6]: http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2010/nov/29/city-murder-count-reaches-22/
    [7]: http://diversitydata.sph.harvard.edu/Data/Rankings/Show.aspx?ind=14&tf=1&sortby=Name&sort=LowToHigh&notes=True&rt=MetroArea&rgn=ShowAll
    [8]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_J._Bratton

  • Sara

    Hieronymus Bosh (aka Harvard alum):

    Glad you are obsessed with this, and the tiny instance of crime among the 50,000 or so people who flock to downtown New Haven every day, but I already refuted all of your points on other threads. There’s a point where folks just aren’t worth replying to any more. But since someone else posted on this, see below.

    I did agree with Hawke on the broken window theory. When I see trash lying around, in New Haven or anywhere else, I get pissed off and feel less secure. Luckily most of New Haven’s downtown, and the majority if residential neighborhoods, are very clean. The City needs to work on cleaning up the others.


    That CQPress list you posted does not even remotely compare apples to apples – municipalities with a few square miles of land, such as New Haven, are compared versus those that cover hundreds of square miles. If you took New Haven and a few hundred square miles around it, so you’d have an accurate comparison, it would actually be among the safest cities in the country. As I’ve pointed out in other comments on this board, the only accurate comparison is CQPress’s other list, which compares actual cities through the Census Bureau’s metro identifications, not just “municipalities.” The latter list is used by all academic researchers, including Harvard SPH’s diversity data site, Brookings, etc., among others.

    Do you go to Yale, or are you plainly a Harvard alum like Bosh? If the former, you should be promoting much higher academic standards in this town :-)

  • River Tam

    Sara: Hieronymous Bosh has been commenting on YDN articles since he was a student at Yale. Calling him a Harvard student (without any proof, I might add) does your cause no favors.

  • pablum

    New Haven is a city rife with inequalities. Only a Swiftian proposal could make New Haven safe for the rich and comfortable. Until the poor are dumped into the harbor, or martial law is declared, we will simply have to make do with the consequences of the society in which we live.

    I once heard a Yale girl, probably a compassionate conservative, asking a beggar if he accepted credit cards, only to laugh and frolic away down Broadway. This I thought was the stuff of Dickens.

  • waldo

    As usual, not following your logic here. Though the study isn’t necessarily a full depiction of the situation, it’s hardly because of the square miles of land of the cities.

    Comparable cities in the top 25:
    New Haven 20.31 sq mi
    Camden, NJ 10.4 sq mi
    Newark, NJ 26.0 sq mi
    Flint, MI 34.1 sq mi
    Compton, CA 10.2 sq mi
    Hartford, CT 18.0 sq mi
    Jackson, MI 11.1 sq mi

    I’ll point out that with similar area, per capita violent crime for 2009 in Newark was lower than New Haven, where Newark’s 2,597 with a population of 279,203 in 26 square miles put it well below New Haven, getting 2,183 violent offenses with a population of 123,659 in 20.31 square miles.

    I’m glad you like New Haven and you and your small children stroll the streets freely at night with no worries. I like New Haven and Yale a lot too, but let’s not be oblivious to the actual community we live in.

    Also, resorting to “Harvard accusations” is pretty childish. It, too, is a great place to be, and I’m sorry you didn’t get in (which is the only reason I’d imagine would make you put it down in your postings, elsewhere more than here).