New Haven has seven official sister cities, ranging from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Mexico’s Tetlanohcan, with whom it tries to increase appreciation of each other’s cultures. I suggest an eighth: the island of Puerto Rico. Yes, I know it’s not technically a city and yes, it’s part of the United States, but when it comes to New Haven’s most pressing issue at the moment — crime — the parallels are too strong to ignore.
There have been approximately 1,000 murders on Puerto Rico this year, turning areas of the island into free fire zones where residents live in a state of terror. It’s the most homicides the island has ever had, just beating the previous record set in 1994. Here in New Haven, we’re surging towards our 1994 murder record as well. That record is 32 — right now, we’re at 31.
Almost 4 million people live on Puerto Rico; only 130,000 live in New Haven. That means that the per capita murder rates for New Haven and Puerto Rico are almost identical. New Haven’s is around 24 murders per 100,000 residents, while Puerto Rico’s is around 25. (For some comparison: the U.S. national average is around five; New York City’s is around six, New Orleans: 50; overseas, Bogota’s is 23 and Caracas takes the cake at 200.)
The absolute number of homicides so far this year — 31 — might seem a little less scary than 1,000, but the fear effect is the same. On the island, people are, to put it delicately, freaking out. According to the Associated Press, more than four out of five Puerto Ricans say they try not to go outside their homes when possible. It’s the same story in New Haven. Most of the murders take place in the same neighborhoods, disrupting them to the point where normal life becomes fraught with danger. New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood just west of campus is considering instituting a youth curfew.
And this isn’t part of some national crime trend that New Haven can just wait out. Nationally, crime — and murders in particular — are on the decline. In fact, the national murder rate in 2010 fell to its lowest level in four decades, to the same level as in the early and mid-1960s: just under five murders per 100,000 people. The country’s murder rate spiked in the early 1990s, just like New Haven’s. But then the country got its act together and the rate started declining and hasn’t stopped since. According to a recently released Department of Justice report, most of that decline is thanks to reductions made in large cities (cities with more than 100,000 people). In fact, cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 people are now on average the safest kind of large city in America. Except, of course, for New Haven. The time for excuses is gone.
Unfortunately, in response to the public criticism that so many murders cause, city and police officials are too often short on solutions and instead put forward exactly that: a series of excuses, all of them equally inane.
Excuse #1: New Haven is a small city, and if we were drawing the boundaries today, the city would be larger, have a bigger population and lower per capita murder rate.
What this adds up to is this: If there were more people in the city, you wouldn’t notice the 31 dead ones as much. It’s a cynical, pessimistic, unproductive view that offers nothing in the way of hope to city residents.
Excuse #2: Murders may be up, but shootings are down. The problem is not one of more people killing each other; the people with guns are just aiming better or the victims are just unlucky.
This is a popular public relations tactic for city police chiefs. When murders increased in 2008, police said to focus on the number of shootings. When murders decreased the next year, the murder rate was suddenly the only statistic that mattered. Illegal firearm discharges are indeed down significantly this year, but the more serious assaults with firearms category has increased. But whether shootings are up or down, nothing is more destructive to a community, and an individual, than murder, and police should react, and be judged, accordingly.
Excuse #3: The police can’t make progress without the help of the community.
Community help does make policing easier, but that does not mean officers can’t make the first move. A small subset of city residents are criminals, and an even smaller subset of these criminals are the ones responsible for a disproportionately large amount of the violence. Target them, remove them from the community, and neighborhoods will have breathing room to engage meaningfully with police. That relationship and presence, in turn, can prevent other criminals from stepping in to fill the havoc-wreaking role and keep the community peaceful. So yes, community relationships are key, but it is the duty of law enforcement to take the first step and deal with the violent minority keeping neighborhoods in a state of fear.
Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. New Haven’s new police chief, Dean Esserman, helped pioneer this type of approach in the city in the 1990s. He’s taking steps to bring it back and make it stay. Let’s see how it goes. If it works, New Haven will rapidly be rejoining the rest of the country in bidding high murder rates goodbye.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.