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.

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