TO: SARAH EIDELSON, WARD 1 ALDERWOMAN-ELECT
LOCATION: NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT
SITUATION: NOT GOOD
Congratulations. Now comes the hard part.
You’ve landed yourself in quite a pickle. You’ve agreed to be a part of the government of a city in danger of losing two decades of progress thanks to a well-deserved and persistent reputation for crime and the inability to stop it. “But what can I do about 20 years of failure?” you might ask yourself. “I just got here.” Well, quite a lot, actually. New Haven’s biggest problems are an abundance of crime and a lack of leadership. You can go a long way to solve both.
When it comes to policing and crime, newly re-elected Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has used generations of compliant aldermen to insulate the New Haven Police Department from accountability. The mayor alone has the power to select the police chief, and the mayor-appointed Board of Police Commissioners alone has oversight of misconduct in the department — the civilian review board has no power to subpoena witnesses or documents, so it functionally does not exist. At every turn, DeStefano has blocked the Board of Aldermen, and therefore the public, from having any say about the department. When the mayor canned former Chief Frank Limon, DeStefano had him skedaddle on a Friday night and hired a new chief rather than allow a public debate about the police department and its direction.
Attempts to change this dangerous secrecy have been weak. The board once insisted on approving the NHPD’s assistant chiefs before they took office. The demand was completely ignored, the chiefs were seated and the board meekly complied. This is not how government is supposed to work in a republic. Maybe in Singapore, but then it would have to be effective. There have been 29 murders in the city this year: Incompetent authoritarianism is not working.
Thankfully, you have a few tricks up your sleeve to return free speech and thought to policing. The first is simple and can start now: Raise a stink! You’re a public official now, and people and press will listen if you start assailing the current system. Public pressure works — no one likes being criticized. DeStefano & Co. won’t abandon secrecy overnight, but publicity will make it embarrassing for them to keep it up. This doesn’t have to be a lone suicide mission — you’ve got 18 new aldermen who are just as fed up with the status quo and can join you. NHPD officials also regularly testify before the board. You and your fellow newcomers can transform these hearings from the rubber stamp check-ins they are into the grilling sessions they should be. Make the police fear these sessions and prepare rigorously for them.
And once discussion of crime issues resumes, you can cement the return of accountability with structural changes. This would mean reforming the city’s charter to give the Board of Aldermen authority to confirm the NHPD’s chief and assistant chiefs. And it would mean adopting an excellent policy proposal of your former opponent, Vinay Nayak ’14, to increase oversight of police misconduct by adjusting membership of the police board to include elected officials or giving the civilian board subpoena power, both would be ideal.
When it comes to reducing crime, combine outside expertise with local knowledge. Rely on local leaders for accurate info about the dynamics of city neighborhoods, but if something the chief or mayor is saying doesn’t seem to jive, call up experts from outside the city for a fresh set of eyes, or even invite experts to come testify about city policies. You’re an elected official — you can do these things. Make it clear to the police leadership that they do not have a monopoly on what makes for good crime-fighting strategy and that you stand ready to question and critique them if they’re not producing results.
Some officials may tell you that the road of reform is necessarily long and difficult and that you shouldn’t even try until you’ve gained experience. This is a curious position; you would think they would welcome energy and new ideas, especially given how they’ve been doing. Sadly, the longer city politicians and officials remain in power, the more complacent they become. You, on the other hand, must enter office with a sense of outrage — a sense that 29 murders a year cannot become New Haven’s new normal if it hopes to thrive. And you must work to keep that outrage alive and apathy dead six months, 12 months and 18 months into your term. Only when the leaders and residents of the city collectively acknowledge that this is not the way things are supposed to be will they change.
This won’t be an easy road. You’d have a much smoother time passing limited measures in other areas and leaving the controversy to … well, somebody else. But as it stands, the city needs you to confront those in power rather than compromise with them.