When Dean Esserman arrived as assistant chief of the New Haven Police Department in 1991, the city’s crime was at record-high levels.
Organized gang activity and a rampant narcotics trade spurred shootings and other violent crimes — October 1991 registered six shootings a day, and that year still holds the city’s record of 36 murders. The community demanded a substantial change in the Elm City’s policing strategy. Esserman, along with NHPD Chief Nick Pastore, answered the call. Under their leadership, the department adopted a new mentality that emphasized intelligence sharing and building relationships with the community — a novel strategy at the time known as “community policing.”
Esserman answered the city’s call again last November, when he was sworn in as NHPD chief, 18 years after departing the Elm City to run the police departments in Stamford, Conn., and Providence, R.I. Though the overall level of crime was well below where it was when he left — the number of shootings had dropped by a factor of three and the number of violent crimes registered under the Federal Bureau of Intelligence’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) had halved since 1993 — residents were alarmed by the number of homicides last year, which had reached 30 by the time Esserman was sworn in.
“My marching orders are firm: address the violence and connect to the community,” he said when his appointment was announced Oct. 18.
Less than 10 days after Esserman took office, a man was murdered a block from Union Station, bringing the homicide count to 31 — en route to a 20-year high of 34 murders.
The uptick in homicides last year, along with a rise in shootings, prompted the department to return to a community policing strategy. Esserman has reorganized the department in line with his vision to put officers and citizens on “the same team,” but this is not the first time such a strategy has been employed in New Haven. Rather than charting a new course for the department, Esserman is instead reviving a formerly effective strategy that had fallen out of favor since the late 1990s.
In fact, as Yale Police Department Assistant Chief Michael Patten observed, the NHPD has moved “back to the future,” though whether community policing is here to stay is far from clear.
A ‘GENTLER, KINDER’ STRATEGY
Facing a grisly crime problem in the summer leading up to the 1989 mayoral elections, candidate John Daniels called a meeting with his advisers, Douglas Rae, who then served as chair of Yale’s Political Science Department, and State Sen. Toni Harp, then a New Haven alderwoman. In Rae’s office at Yale, the three of them discussed how to position Daniels’ candidacy on policing so that “it didn’t seem racist or over-compensating and yet did address the issues,” Rae said. Their solution was to adopt a new approach that was being ushered in at police departments nationwide: community policing.
Policing strategies in the late 1980s were “para-militaristic” and primarily deployed officers out in cars and SWAT teams, ready to respond to dispatch, sociology professor Philip Smith said. This policing philosophy — the antithesis of the engagement demanded by community policing — was espoused by then-NHPD Chief William Farrell, who decorated his office with military regalia and installed a bulletproof glass sheet at the entrance of the department’s Union Avenue headquarters.
Farrell’s style of policing was “absolutely hated” by the community, said Barbara Fair, a longtime community activist. His hostile approach to law enforcement was epitomized by the “beat-down posse,” a unit of officers that assaulted groups of teenagers without cause in a bid to deter drug trafficking and gang violence, she said.
Despite its apparent brutality, the old style of policing was “more appropriate in the time period,” said Louis Cavaliere, a former NHPD union president who served 43 years on the force. The gang and drug violence of the time called for harsher policing methods to deter criminal activity, he said, though these did not always win over the public.
“Farrell was vehemently anti-community policing — he had the quasi-military view that policing was basically about coordinated operations using automobiles to get officers to places in a hurry,” Rae said.
After Daniels won the 1989 election and became the city’s first African-American mayor, he appointed Rae chief administrative officer, a position that overssees the police department, among others. The two of them “put together a package” to persuade Farrell to resign, Rae said. They did not tell Farrell who would replace him — if they had, Rae said, Farrell “would not have resigned at any price.”
With Farrell gone, Daniels appointed Nick Pastore as NHPD chief in February 1990. That move, Fair said, was a “game-changer”: Pastore removed the bulletproof glass from the entrance of the NHPD’s headquarters, invited officers of all ranks to visit his office and eliminated the military paraphernalia that previously adorned the department.
“Pastore would go unarmed into a tough neighborhood and sit down next to a tree and talk to a group of teenagers and ask them what’s going on in life, how can we officers show respect and earn your respect for us,” Rae said.
Those moves were mostly symbolic, said Richard Epstein, chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners. Far more important, he said, was the “entirely new mentality, a gentler, kinder approach” that he instilled in the rank and file, with Esserman’s help as assistant chief.
This new vision for the department relied upon a “completely different way of engaging citizens,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who succeeded Daniels in 1993 and has held onto power since. By reaching out to the entire community, “including the criminal element,” Pastore sought to mend the “disconnect” between cops and the public, and encourage a communal effort to combat violent crime, DeStefano said.
“What is important isn’t the number of police on the street, but the way they handle themselves,” Pastore said in a 2006 interview with the advocacy group Drug Policy Foundation. “We policed with human kindness, even when we dismantled drug gangs.”
To complement his new vision for New Haven policing, Pastore made wide-ranging tactical changes within the NHPD. He set up 12 permanent police substations and created a system of policing districts based on the city’s neighborhoods, DeStefano said.
As part of Pastore’s strategy, officers assigned to each district would not simply remain in their substations, but walk on beats. By being “out and about”, officers could interact with residents and business owners and win their trust so that the community could share intelligence with police to improve crime clearance rates, Esserman said.
Pastore also hoped to deter violence by building relationships with those who might commit crime.
“Talk about the criminal mind,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “If we could rechannel that into positive behavior — that’s what I try to do all the time: modify people’s behavior.”
As the police broke apart gangs and strengthened relationships with the community, crime dropped — the total number of violent crimes recorded in the FBI’s UCR dropped every year from 1991 through 2000, and the number of rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults all dropped at least 30 percent throughout the decade.
People “felt a lot safer on the streets” as the community policing strategy matured through the 1990s, Fair said.
“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.”
Despite its initial success, community policing strategies waned at the turn of the millenium for both technical and ideological reasons.
By 2000, the NHPD had dismantled virtually all the gangs in the city in tandem with federal and state law enforcement agencies, said Rob Smuts ’01, the city’s chief administrative officer. With the “changing reality on the ground,” he said, the NHPD chose to “evolve its strategy.”
The change in the city’s policing dynamic through the early 2000s came partly from the top: Pastore resigned in 1997 after admitting he had fathered a child with a convicted prostitute, and was replaced by Melvin Wearing, who had served as assistant chief under Pastore. Esserman, Pastore’s protege, had left in 1993 to head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department.
“Community policing continued, perhaps not quite as effectively, under Mel Wearing,” Epstein said, adding that it was difficult to replicate Pastore and Esserman’s vision.
While the tactical aspects of community policing — including walking beats and the police districts — were not completely phased out, the department lessened its focus on the community-oriented strategy in the decade following Pastore’s departure, NHPD spokesman David Hartman said.
There was “no conscious shift” away from community policing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Epstein said, though he admitted budgetary issues could have affected the department’s operations.
As officers retired, they were replaced by fewer new recruits as a result of spending constraints, Hartman said. This resulted in an increasing number of officers who were moved to response and enforcement duties rather than engaging with citizens in local neighborhoods, he added.
The politics of community policing are “complicated,” Rae said, adding that there is a “constant struggle” between administration and police unions about overtime pay. Walking beats and other personnel deployment tactics used in community policing often increase overtime pay, he explained.
“There’s a balancing act that needs to occur,” Hartman said. “It’s good to put more cops out in the community, but you can’t sacrifice the ability to respond to calls.”
The apparent necessity of community policing strategies also faded as the incidence of violent crime fell, said Ward 29 Alderman Brian Wingate, chair of the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee. Both Wingate and Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 — another member of the committee — said this downward trend in crime could have been the result of the improved economic environment in the late 1990s.
“I think the city of New Haven thought it was at a point when the gangs were gone, and crime was dropping,” Wingate said. “They went to another kind of policing model because there weren’t people on the corners anymore and they felt that you didn’t need people walking the beat.”
But city administrators detailed a series of more technical reasons behind the gradual phase-out of community policing.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government’s counter-terrorism efforts “changed the mission of our partner federal agencies in a meaningful way,” DeStefano said, leading to less emphasis on combating local crime. With the greater focus on terrorist activity, the federal government slashed police grants and reduced its infrastructure for aiding local law enforcement, Smuts said.
Alongside cuts in federal support for police operations were problems unique to the NHPD that hampered the continued deployment of community policing strategies. A significant number of managers — “mid-level supervisors who were trained under Pastore and understood his vision” — exited the NHPD, DeStefano said. Many of these officers transferred to other police departments around the country, often assuming higher positions, he added.
The NHPD was also hit with several highly publicized corruption scandals that disrupted operations and dampened public trust in the department. Together, DeStefano said, these factors “incrementally shifted” the department away from community policing.
“These factors resulted in the changes in deployment strategy that removed officers from interaction, they resulted in a changed sense of mission,” DeStefano said.
Fair, however, said the shift away from community policing began even under Pastore, as officers resisted the fundamental change in policing mentality he tried to foster. She said she doubted that all officers in the department “bought” community policing as a viable strategy.
Traditionally, there had been a “poor police culture” in departments around the country that emphasized quasi-military behavior, sociology professor Smith said, which runs counter to the “people skills” required for effective community policing.
Many of the officers in the department Pastore took over carried over the training and attitudes of previous leadership, and did not have the temperament to walk beats, Rae said.
“There’s a big ideological dimension to community policing,” Rae said. “A lot of people who put on the badge find reaching out too humbling, so you’ve got to recruit for the style of department you’re going to run.”
THE ‘CAROUSEL’ OF LEADERSHIP
Beyond ideological and technical factors, frequent turnover in the NHPD’s leadership between 2003 and 2010 led to the decline of community policing in the Elm City. In that period, the NHPD had four chiefs and more than a dozen assistant chiefs — a revolving door that prevented the department from adopting a coherent and sustained strategy.
These changes began after Wearing retired in 2003 and his deputy, Francisco Ortiz, assumed leadership of the NHPD.
“By the time we had gotten to Chief Ortiz, community policing did not seem as effective as before — we still believed in it as a concept and but it wasn’t really being adopted,” Epstein said.
In January 2008, a little over three years after he took over as chief, Ortiz retired to direct security at Yale’s West Campus following a corruption scandal. That started what Ward 17 Alderman Alphonse Paolillo called a “carousel” of leadership at the NHPD: James Lewis, a former chief of the police department in Green Bay, Wisc., completed the 18 months left in Ortiz’s contract and his successor, Frank Limon, abruptly resigned after 20 months as chief.
For Limon, who took office in April 2010, the major NHPD goal was to curb rising gun violence and address the rising homicide count, he told the News last March. While the Elm City saw 12 murders in 2009, that figure had doubled to 24 in 2010 and community leaders expressed concerns about the resurgence of violence in the city’s neighborhoods.
With the rising number of shootings and a feeling of disconnect between police and the public, the community demanded a return to community policing. Limon responded to the city’s public safety concerns by reaching out, holding a series of community meetings throughout the year. In October, he announced the department would roll out expanded foot patrols and bike patrols.
With these tactical changes, the city began its move back to a community-oriented policing strategy. Limon, however, would not ultimately be the one to implement the change.
“Chief Limon represented a period of transition to try and get back to where we wanted to go,” DeStefano said. “But it was not a match meant to be.”
Facing increased external pressure as the number of homicides climbed and internal pressure from the NHPD union — which voted “no confidence” against him in a landslide vote last March — Limon abruptly announced his resignation on Oct. 17.
At the same time, DeStefano said he was aware Esserman had resigned as chief of the Providence Police Department and Esserman was aware of the mayor’s concerns about the direction of the NHPD.
“My job is to recruit the best people to the task,” DeStefano explained. “The decision to hire Esserman made itself.”
DeStefano announced Esserman’s appointment Oct. 18 and the new chief was sworn in at City Hall on Nov. 18. When he was sworn in, he became the city’s fourth chief in four years.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Esserman was hailed as a “living embodiment” of community policing by William Bratton, who headed the police departments in New York and Los Angeles and mentored Esserman while they worked together at the MTA police in New York.
“Actions will speak louder than words, so let me tell you, the New Haven Police Department is returning fully to the neighborhoods of our city,” Esserman said.
A ‘NEW DIRECTION’ FOR THE NHPD
When Esserman took office, he promised to take the NHPD in a “new direction.”
Unlike his recent predecessors, Esserman has adopted a “coherent crime strategy, a plan that’s holistic,” reflecting his policing philosophy, Smuts said.
Though he has been chief for less than five months, he has already made wide-changing tactical changes to the department in line with his broader strategic goals. Esserman followed through with his commitment to deploy walking beats in the city’s 10 policing districts, assigning two officers to downtown beats by December and another 18 officers around the city by January.
In March, Esserman unveiled a two-phase strategic plan that will see the department swell to 467 officers over the next year, and ultimately expand to 494 officers within three years.
That growth will enable the department to increase its patrol capabilities. In particular, by assigning more officers to the neighborhoods — the NHPD will field 40 walking beats and a full complement of car beats under the new plan — Esserman hopes to strengthen community engagement and move the department from enforcement to proactive policing, Hartman added.
The NHPD will also completely restaff its narcotics and undercover units, Hartman said, explaining that these positions are temporary assignments, so there are frequent changes to their composition.
“I was pretty deliberate in my thinking [about reorganizing the department,] I took a few months to do it,” Esserman said in an April interview. “I’ve almost finished interviewing every sergeant and lieutenant in the department, and then I’ll take everyone on a retreat at the end of the month.”
These strategic changes may be paying off, said Bishop Theodore Brooks, who served on the city’s Board of Police Commissioners until February. By reaching out proactively to the community, officers are helping to “change the culture on the street,” he said.
“It’s not just the police, who are treating the people right and seeing them respond accordingly, but also it has to do with the community itself, with people reaching out to each other and asking them to stop the violence and the senseless killings,” said Brooks.
A SUSTAINED STRATEGY?
For Esserman, deploying walking beats is simply one part of a broader community policing strategy that involves developing relationships between police and all members of the community to both prevent and solve crimes.
That strategy is a longer-term one that Esserman said he hopes to be “sustainable,” although it is only in its “first phase.”
“I have a lot of confidence in what Chief Esserman is doing. He’s committed to being here for a while, he’s the right fit and he’s committed to setting up a long-term plan for combating crime and fostering leadership ability,” Smuts said.
Some short-term statistics are starting to show the fruit of the NHPD’s labors: so far this year, violent crime is down around 20 percent, including drops in the number of aggravated assaults and robberies.
“There were 34 murders and 133 shootings last year — this year it’s two [homicides],” Esserman said. “My first focus is saving lives. My second focus is to reconnect the department to this community — to lose its arrogance, to lose its ignorance.”
The community has, for the most part, responded positively to the changes in the NHPD and the positive crime statistics this year, though none of the community leaders interviewed — ranging from Brooks to members of a local anti-violence organization — said they were confident in the connection between Esserman’s leadership and the reduced crime the city has seen so far this year.
Though crime is down, Esserman has only been in office for five months and his strategies in place for less than that, so “no one is declaring victory,” DeStefano said.
But some in the city, however, are not completely satisfied by Esserman’s attempts to revive community policing. Fair said she does not think Esserman is on the right track.
“I think he thinks putting officers on the streets is community policing, but it takes a whole lot more,” she said. “Officers need to be interacting with people in a whole lot better manner.”
Her view was echoed by Cavaliere, who resigned as NHPD union president last year and continues to serve the department as a consultant. Cavaliere said the rank and file were “very upset” about the new chief, whom he accused of “leading with threats, intimidation and bullying people.” As a result, the morale of rank-and-file officers is “very low,” he said.
In a Tuesday interview, Cavaliere said he believed that the union would soon call a no-confidence vote against Esserman.
But a vote of no confidence should not be considered “alarming” for a new chief, Rae said, adding that the NHPD union has had a history of pushing back against new leadership.
While current NHPD union president Arpad Tolnay did not return multiple requests for comment this past week, he told the New Haven Independent he was adopting a “wait-and-see” approach to all the changes Esserman has implemented. And in a March interview with the News, prior to the announcement of the department’s new strategic plan, Tolnay expressed confidence in the general tenor of Esserman’s leadership.
Still, city administrators said they are confident any concerns the rank-and-file may have about the direction of the department will fade as the chief’s vision becomes more clear.
“If in the long run we consistently articulate the vision, create accountability, then the rank and file and the chief will get along just fine,” DeStefano said.
Indeed, Esserman said he is working to stabilize the department, so as to create a environment for long term community policing success. To that end, he chose four New Haven locals as his assistant chiefs, as part of his “responsibility to prepare the next generation of leadership.”
Looking ahead, DeStefano and Epstein both said they do not have a “crystal ball” and could not predict whether Esserman’s vision for community policing will persist beyond his tenure. But if Esserman has his way, the bonds between the public and the police will continue to strengthen and the city’s reputation for violent crime will be a thing of the past.
“We’ve seen the grand strategy,” Hausladen said. “Only time will tell whether it’s a sustained strategy or a band-aid.”