While Colin Ross’s most recent column (“Memo to Sarah Eidelson ’12,” Nov. 9) is not wrong in support of community policing, his analysis of how community policing will come about is simplistic and unrealistic. It fails to recognize how the history of policing in New Haven makes establishing an effective community policing regime difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that community policing can be achieved with a long-term strategy to promote it within the force and that crime can be reduced in the short-term through continued data-based policing.
The history of the New Haven Police Department is complex and provides a crucial lesson for anyone interested in improving urban policing. In the 1960s and 70s, the NHPD illegally wiretapped 1,238 phones, including those of Black Panthers and other liberal activists. Police Chief Biagio “Ben” DiLieto resigned when the wiretapping allegations came to light.
Yet in 1979, DiLieto was elected mayor. He would serve for 10 years, and was widely regarded as a successful mayor. His policing record during his time in elected office was suspect, though. New Haven was experiencing the full throes of the crack epidemic, and the NHPD took on a militaristic approach. One of its most notorious units was referred to as the Beat-Down Posse, a well-armed group of police officers that would target and assault youths it believed to be involved in the drug trade. According to local reporter Paul Bass, the NHPD during this period actively recruited police officers who embraced violent tactics.
New Haven elected its first African-American mayor, John Daniels, in 1989. The next year, he installed Nick Pastore as police chief. This is when community policing in New Haven began. Pastore created the decentralized leadership system that exists to this day: District managers make many of the decisions about policing tactics in the neighborhoods that they oversee. His other ideas like a strong Civilian Review Board or a youth advisory council have largely fallen by the wayside. The crux of community policing, police officers walking beats instead of hiding in cars, does happen in this city, though it is uneven among districts. So, why didn’t community policing stick?
Put simply, the force never fully supported community policing. After Pastore took the reins, dozens of police officers took a coordinated sick day and jammed police radios. Dean Esserman, then a lawyer, was brought in to try to sell the idea of community policing to the old guard. In 2008, then-police union head Lou Cavaliere maintained that the only reason that community policing had an impact was that the Beat-Down Posse had cleaned up the city. Pastore himself was done in by scandal and resigned in 1997. Change will not happen overnight, nor will it happen in the next two years. There is a long-term strategy that needs to be put in place.
First, Dean Esserman, the new police chief, should ensure that all new hires buy into the tenets of community policing. We have a large number of community policing-minded cops because Pastore brought in people who supported it. But until the vast majority of the force buys into community policing, we are not going anywhere on this issue.
Second, the City should do more to encourage officers to live in the city. Only 11 percent of police officers live in New Haven. It is hard to have community policing when the police are not from the community.
These solutions will not change the state of crime in New Haven tomorrow. But, if we look at the history of New Haven and policing, it is silly to think that there are short-term solutions to the issue of community policing.
The current realities mean that, as we build a long-term strategy of community policing, the best way forward is for the Board to continue to encourage data-driven policing. This type of policing relies on using up-to-the-minute data on criminal activity to effectively deploy police officers to so-called “hotspots,” blocks or intersections with particularly high incidents of crime. Dean Esserman used extensive data-based policing as chief in Providence, and was successful. New Haven has tried data policing before, and hired a tech specialist in June 2010. The most immediate step that the Board can take is to prioritize data-driven policing.
New Haven certainly needs to focus on improving the effectiveness of its police force and embracing a community policing strategy. Colin Ross’s suggestion that the Board of Alderman badger the police until they change will not work. We need the Board to work with Chief Esserman to bring in new officers and to bring officers into our community. It won’t solve New Haven’s crime problems overnight, but it will bring about a dramatic change in the force and the city.