Despite improvements, students concerned about crime

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Photo by James Lu.

Despite a dramatic decline in crime over the past several years, a News survey revealed that many students continue to be concerned about crime in the city and around campus.

While students said recent years have seen an improvement in student-police relations, and most welcomed the New Haven Police Department’s embrace of community policing, they still have concerns about crime, according to a survey of 763 undergraduates conducted by the News last Monday and Tuesday. The perception of criminal activity around Yale’s campus lingers despite significant progress in crime reduction around the city and campus over the past decade.

“The perception has been there for 20 years, and we’re making steady progress,” University President Richard Levin said. “But the perception isn’t inappropriate. We’re in a city — like Boston, New York City or Philadelphia — and students do need to take precautions against muggings on the street. It really is important to avail oneself of security services we offer.”

When asked about whether they are concerned about crime on campus, 23 percent of the students surveyed responded that they are “very concerned,” while 47 percent said they were “somewhat concerned.” Similarly, when asked about their perception of violent crime in the Elm City, 24 percent of respondents said they were “very concerned” and 57 percent of students said they were “concerned.”

After the News forwarded the results of the survey to Yale Police Department leadership over the weekend, Chief Higgins addressed both the positive and negative issues indicated by the poll.

“Students’ main focus should be to concentrate on their studies so the fact that students’ concern for violent crime in and around campus persists is of interest to us as the campus police,” Higgins said. “Although crime is on a downward trend in recent months, there is a perception that because we are in an urban environment certain levels of crime continues to exist.”

Higgins said “sporadic incidents that draw public attention” can contribute to the level of fear of crime, which can impact the perception of safety and security more than the actual crime itself.

Concerns about crime, Levin added, may have also been amplified by the record homicide count in New Haven last year: 34, a 20-year high.

“I think the recent tick in homicides is being taken very seriously … [but] the overall crime rate is still declining — it’s only the homicide rate that went up,” he said.

Indeed, there has been a consistent drop in the number of crimes registered on campus and in the city at large. Reported crimes on Yale’s campus dropped 11 percent during the 2009-’10 school year, according to the University’s most recent filing with the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, violent crime around New Haven fell 11 percent last year compared to the previous year, and is down around 20 percent so far this year.

Despite their concerns about crime, the majority of students surveyed said they had positive impressions of both the YPD’s and the NHPD’s operations. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had a “favorable” impression of the YPD and another 9 percent said they had a “very favorable” impression of the department.

Higgins attributed these results to the “culture of community-oriented policing” within his department. Increased visibility, as well as the YPD’s use of social media such as Twitter, have contributed to this favorable impression, he said.

“Officers are on the beat interacting with students, officers are on foot patrols, bike patrols and vehicle patrols, and we’re doing more traffic stops,” he said. “We’re doing whatever it takes to make our presence more visible in the area.”

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they felt the NHPD’s relationship with students has improved since NHPD officers raided Elevate Lounge in October 2010, Tasering a student five times and arresting five students, all of whom were later cleared of all charges against them.

A majority of students expressed support for the NHPD’s recent efforts to shift toward community policing strategies, which aim to build relationships between the police and the public. Fourteen percent of students surveyed said they “strongly support” the new moves — which include the return of walking beats citywide and an expansion of patrol personnel — while 37 percent said they “support” the strategies.

While NHPD Chief Dean Esserman has attempted to reach out to the Yale community by meeting with several student groups, many students were unable to identify him as the current NHPD chief.

Thirty-five percent of respondents correctly identified Esserman as the current NHPD chief, while 29 percent selected Higgins and the remaining 37 percent split their responses between former NHPD chiefs Frank Limon and James Lewis.

Asked about these results, Levin cautioned against “trust[ing] multiple choice tests,” adding that the results “probably meant that 80 percent had no idea” and just guessed in their response.

“I actually don’t think it’s imperative that Yale students know the name of the New Haven police chief,” he said. “I would hope they would know Ronnell Higgins is their own police chief, since they hear from him regularly and he is the person directly in charge of our campus area.”

Higgins said it was “not surprising” that students would not be able to name the current NHPD chief because of turnover in recent years — the NHPD has had four different chiefs since 2007. But, he said, he expects that students will become more familiar with Esserman as he becomes more visible in the Yale community.

Esserman currently teaches a Yale Law School clinic on “Innovations in Policing” with professor James Forman Jr. LAW ’92 and is a fellow in Jonathan Edwards college.

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