It’s no surprise that New Haven has a crime and policing problem. It is a surprise that neither of our Ward 1 aldermanic candidates seems willing or able to do much about it.
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I was shocked and alarmed by the comments of candidate Vinay Nayak ’14 about policing at Monday’s aldermanic debate. He argued that the New Haven Board of Aldermen — and implicitly anybody else in the city — should have no role in setting the strategy of the New Haven Police Department. This position hasn’t gotten much attention yet, but there’s no more important issue in the election.
Nayak says the mayor and police chief should be the only ones directing how cops fight crime. He bases that claim on a technical point: in the city’s charter, the mayor has the unilateral authority to hire the chief. This is true, but to say that it excludes other elected officials from having a say in what goes on at police headquarters is utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that.
Such an outlook would make permanent the unfortunately well-established New Haven tradition of preventing public debate about the direction of the police department. We got the latest taste of that mindset last week, when Chief Frank Limon bolted town and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. covered up his departure until Limon was safely away and a new chief was in place. For anyone with a sense of democratic transparency, or just plain simple decency, the whole affair was shameful. Nayak’s position would legitimize this kind of behavior. “I think more transparency is always a good thing. But I’m more interested in looking forward than back,” he said in an email to the News.
The voice of the Board of Aldermen — and of the broader community — is a crucial one in forging a police force that is accountable, responsive and effective. As any cop will tell you: law enforcement flounders without community input, and input doesn’t just mean telling officers where the violent thug is lurking but also telling them what they are doing wrong. Would Nayak have spoken out when the misguided Operation Nightlife and Elevate raid sought to reduce downtown violence by stopping Yalies from drinking? If he was following his policy of non-intervention, the answer would be no.
Nayak says he favors community policing. That’s all well and good, but if he believes that aldermen shouldn’t have a say about the department, who cares what Nayak favors? He could favor martial law and it wouldn’t matter because of his self-imposed cone of silence.
It’s absurd. The American President appoints the directors of the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Nayak’s calculus, does that mean Congress should stop overseeing these agencies and just let those in power do as they please? Good government just doesn’t work that way. We need checks and balances, even here in New Haven. And especially on an organization as fraught with past corruption and incompetence as the NHPD.
Now, to be fair to Nayak, he does advocate increased civilian oversight of the department, either by increasing the power of the Civilian Review Board, or by adjusting the structure of the Police Commissioner’s Board, which currently investigates allegations of police misconduct. That is a significant and laudable reform that will increase accountability. But it doesn’t excuse Nayak’s abdication of responsibility of the broader oversight of the direction of the city’s police. Nayak appears to have a solid grasp of the structure of the police force and how it might be improved, making his decision to not get involved as perplexing as it is troubling.
I’ve been neglecting Nayak’s opponent, Sarah Eidelson ’12. I wish I could say that Eidelson gives me confidence that she would reject Nayak’s laissez-fail approach, but she doesn’t — not because of her policies but because of her tenacity, which appears to be lacking. She hits the right notes, saying in an email to the News that she wants to be an advocate for community-friendly policing. That’s great, but effective advocacy will need more than the coalitions she says she will build. It will take some confrontation. Challenging authority is no picnic. If Eidelson follows through on her pledge to live in the city for the foreseeable future, she might be less willing to make enemies. But, if she truly cares about changing the reputation of the city, she should summon the strength to do so.
The relationship between the mayor, the police and the community in New Haven is not one that needs to be gently guided to a better place. It needs to be shaken up. There should be outrage, public hearings and a full-court press to reform our secretive city and police leadership. The city pays attention to what aldermen say and the voice of just one of them, even a Yale student, could kick start this badly needed process of public debate about the city’s police. Without it, the city will continue as it has and drift from one police chief and strategy to the next, with no continuity and no sense of unified purpose with the community.
Neither candidate is ideal if we want to change the city’s deplorable policing status quo, and there is no issue that more affects the everyday life of Yalies. We have two weeks left to demand that setting the NHPD on the right track become our new alderman’s top priority.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College and a former managing editor of the News.