When Dean Esserman was welcomed back to New Haven as the police department chief, he was hailed as a prophet of community policing, a crime-fighting strategy that prioritizes preventing crime as much as responding to it. Esserman announced that his mission was to bring community policing back to New Haven, saying, “In my day [New Haven] was the center of the country for community policing. It is time to regain that reputation.”
The theory underlying community policing holds that citizens’ trust in the police is a fundamental prerequisite for law and order. Policemen should walk the streets rather than sit behind desks or drive cars so that communities can get to know them. Law enforcement’s place as a familiar and even friendly neighborhood fixture makes people feel safer and would-be criminals more isolated, which in turn helps reduce crime.
Experts seem to agree that, for whatever reasons, community policing works. New York, Los Angeles and even Providence, R.I. have employed some form of it over the past 20 years and are generally thought to have achieved positive results. And as the News reported in November, New Haven made use of community policing tactics when Esserman was deputy police chief in the early 1990s. Violent crime plummeted, with murders falling from 34 in 1990 to below 20 for several consecutive years. With last year’s homicide count at 34 once again, Mayor DeStefano is hoping that Esserman can bring back the gains of the 90s.
But why did a tactic that worked so well ever stop in the first place? Over time, the New Haven Police Department, facing budget cuts, failed to replace retirees. Community policing is a man-intensive proposition. It requires enough policemen to walk around, not just rush to crime scenes. It costs money. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay for it.
I don’t know nearly enough about crime, policing or New Haven to say why the city saw over 30 murders last year. But if the city had a policing strategy that seemed to work but was cut for financial reasons, I’d think that 34 homicides might make finding the money at least a question for public debate. The little I heard of the community policing debate during last fall’s mayoral and aldermanic elections, however, focused on what strategy the police should employ, not on whether the city has the money to capably implement a good strategy.
The slump in tax revenue after the recent recession forced cuts in city budgets. But the News reported that New Haven’s community policing tactics had already lapsed by February 2009, before the effects of the recession had even been fully felt. Economic slump aside, we’ve become so accustomed to calling government spending wasteful that we simply accept cuts without thinking about their consequences.
Even on a federal level, most of the talk about reducing our fiscal deficit has been about our historically low tax rates or our growing entitlement spending. The bulk of cuts that are set to go into effect over the next decade, however, come from either the military or the domestic discretionary budget, which pays for infrastructure, schools, disaster relief and other necessary expenses. Of course, this budget funds programs that could be more efficient, but across the board cuts don’t improve government’s efficiency. They eat away at government’s ability to perform necessary tasks well.
Obviously, raising more tax revenue implies a host of distributional and economic concerns. But I would certainly pay a bit more if I thought it meant New Haven could have 20 rather than 30 murders, and I would pay more than that if that meant we could bring the number down to 15 or 10. Not all government works, but we can’t fix that problem by eliminating the government that does.
Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com.
Correction: Jan. 30
An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the location of Providence, R.I.