Safety committee considers violence reduction initiatives

The Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee met with Dean Esserman, New Haven chief of police Tuesday evening to discuss two recent violence reduction initiatives.

The first, Project Longevity, a Department of Justice program to reduce gang violence in Connecticut cities, was launched with federal, state and local sponsorship in late November. The committee also reviewed the results of the “community policing” initiative with Esserman, who spearheaded its implementation last year along with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

Policies similar to Project Longevity have been successful in certain neighborhoods of larger cities like Boston and Cincinnati, the Department of Justice reported, but committee chairman Brian Wingate hesitated to recognize it as the perfect solution. “I’ll give it time,” he said. “New Haven is a small town, and Project Longevity is big picture.”

Pastor William Mathis, a longtime advocate for Project Longevity, explained that the policy relies principally on community members discouraging the culture of violence and criminal lifestyle. “We’re sending young gang members a message of the sanctity of life,” he said.

In that spirit, the program encourages communication between law enforcement and the community at large and the gang members themselves, giving many an escape from crime and institutionalization, Esserman and Mathis said. Esserman added that people connected to gangs who have not yet committed serious felonies, as well as juvenile offenders, are offered community support as well as amnesty in the form of a “clean slate” voucher so they do not get trapped in the penal system.

“We want to do the right thing, not just going to arrest someone just because they’re associated with somebody,” Mathis said.

In conjunction with Project Longevity, community policing is a system in which police officers walk regular patrols in historically high-crime neighborhoods. “It’s always the same officers in each district, which builds trust in these communities,” Esserman said. He updated the committee on his efforts to recruit more officers to expand this system.

The city has seen a drop in violent crime since the implementation of community policing. “We’re moving in the right direction. The murder rate is down 50 percent, and shootings are down by a third,” Esserman said. “It’s a beginning; we have a long way to go.”

Despite this decrease in violent crime, one board member expressed her constituents’ continued feelings of insecurity and fear of street crime. “We’re not just trying to bring down the numbers, we’re trying to bring up sense of comfort and safety,” Esserman acknowledged. He added that violence would have to decrease consistently over the course of several years before anyone would recognize it.

The homicide rate in New Haven dropped from 34 in 2011 to 17 in 2012.

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