Today, Dean Esserman will be sworn into the top job as New Haven Police Department Chief, becoming the unit’s fourth new chief in the past four years.
Eighteen years after he left his post as NHPD assistant chief, Esserman is returning to a department “enthusiastically waiting for direction,” NHPD spokesman David Hartman said.
The Elm City’s homicide rate is at a 17-year high — the 30th murder of 2011 occurred last Sunday night — and a major part of the city’s solution to its crime problem, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and outgoing NHPD Chief Frank Limon announced in an Oct. 6 press conference, will lie in a return to a strategy known as community policing.
12 days later, DeStefano announced the appointment of a new chief: Esserman, who city spokesman Adam Joseph called one of the “founding fathers” of community policing in New Haven.
In 1991, as assistant chief, Esserman helped shape a foundation for what community policing meant in the Elm City. While it found success in reducing crime, the strategy has since fallen out of practice in the department, in part due to a decline in the number of officers. Now, Esserman said, the department needs to return its focus to the community.
“My marching orders are firm: address the violence and connect to the community,” he said at the Oct. 18 City Hall press conference announcing his appointment. “In my day [New Haven] was the center of the country for community policing. It is time to regain that reputation.”
City Hall and police officials said the direction of the department now lies in a renewed focus on a proactive strategy that will put officers on walking and bike patrols in New Haven neighborhoods. This shift follows a national trend in again moving toward community-oriented law enforcement strategies — police departments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have all placed a renewed emphasis on strengthening community relations in the past several years. Still, what defines community policing — a buzzword during the mayoral and aldermanic elections earlier this month — is a topic of continued debate. Responsibility for developing and executing the strategy falls to the new chief.
A ‘DIFFERENT LOOK’
In the 1970s and ’80s, policing typically involved contentious relations between cops and the community, Hartman said. The NHPD’s strategy was primarily reactionary — police officers were dispatched after a citizen reported a crime.
In the early 1990s, NHPD Chief Nicholas Pastore and Esserman transitioned the department from a militant engagement with the community to one of intelligence sharing. They moved officers away from their desks and cars and put them on walking patrol on the streets. Officers roamed small neighborhood areas, getting to know the community and, in turn, building trust and familiarity with citizens, Hartman explained.
“Community policing stems from a combined community and department’s realization there had been a disconnect between the two groups,” Hartman said.
The new form of policing was “gentler, kinder” and tried to align community and police interests, said Richard Epstein, the current chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners.
“When the police treat people right, they will respond accordingly and feel more comfortable interacting with them,” said Bishop Theodore Brooks, a commission member.
The NHPD did not universally welcome the new strategy. Ward 12 Alderman Gerald Antunes, a former NHPD officer who now serves as vice-chair of the Board of Alderman’s public safety committee, said he felt officers took some time to understand what community policing entailed.
“Nobody [in Connecticut] had done it before so there was certainly some uncertainty about what it meant to do community policing,” Epstein said. “But I think the statistics bear out its success.”
The number of rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults all dropped at least 30 percent through the decade. The homicide count, which sat at 34 in 1990, had dropped to 20 by 1995 and did not exceed 21 again until 2006.
Though the NHPD never completely phased out community policing strategies, Hartman said, the department lessened its focus on the approach as officers retired and, due to budget constraints, were replaced by fewer hires. As a result, an increasing number of officers had to devote their time to response and enforcement, he added.
“What you lose with officers [on walking beats] is the ability for that same police officer to quickly respond some distance away,” Hartman said. “There’s a balancing act that needs to occur.”
By February 2009, cops were no longer patrolling New Haven in walking or bicycle beats except downtown, Hartman said. At that time, DeStefano called community policing a “passive” strategy, helpful to citizens only at the moments where a cop appeared at somebody’s door.
BACK ON THE BEAT
DeStefano’s line has since changed: The current rate of violent crimes in the Elm City is “unaccpetably high,” he and Limon agreed at the Oct. 6 press conference announcing a renewed focus on community policing.
“What changed is citizens were telling us they wanted to see cops on the beat,” DeStefano said.
After introducing community polciing in New Haven to help improve crime rates, Esserman brought similar on-the-ground tactics to Stamford, Conn., and Providence, R.I., where he served as the chief of the cities’ police departments, beginning in 1998 and 2002 respectively. Now, he returns to the NHPD to once again spearhead community policing. The department’s plans include putting officers on walking beats each day in 10 neighborhoods in order to increase police visibility and develop connections with community members, Assistant Chief Patrick Redding said. Additionally, between 10 and 12 officers will be trained for bike patrols, and district managers will monitor crime data and assign beat patrols to crime hot spots, he added.
The application of community policing principles “attacks the root causes” of violent crime, Hartman said, and can be invaluable in providing information and on-the-ground intelligence necessary to solve cases.
“Establishing ties with the community is going to be very important in helping with some of the concerns we’re now facing, like the increasing number of homicides,” said Donald Morris, head of the Brotherhood Leadership Summit, a local anti-violence group.
Though the new community policing model may be similar to that of the 1990s, Redding said it is “smarter.” In the 1990s, the department assigned officers to a fixed beat, but the new strategy calls for targeted engagement based on day-to-day crime statistics, Hartman explained.
Though Esserman hopes to apply the same techniques that succeeded in lowering the murder rate through the 1990s, DeStefano admitted results will not come immediately: Community policing will serve to enhance community cooperation with law enforcement over time, improving the quality of intelligence that can be used to prevent future crimes. But despite the uncertainty, the city’s political leaders appear to have reached a consensus that now is the right time for the NHPD to bring the strategy back — and to welcome Esserman’s return.