On Monday, the Henry C. Lee Institute announced its latest round of Arnold Markle awards, which are given to recognize achievement in the realm of law enforcement, criminal justice, forensic science and other similar areas. This year, the Law Enforcement award went to New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman.
Two years ago, Esserman would not have had a shot at the award — in fact, he wasn’t even working in New Haven. But his selection signals his transformation from a relative outsider, appointed through a murky selection process, to a pivotal community savior.
Until November 2011, city cops were led by Frank Limon, a transplant from Chicago who had been brought in to tackle the city’s narcotics trafficking and gang problems. He was to replace retiring James Lewis, who donned the chief’s uniform for a relatively short 20 months in an effort to implement federal anti-corruption recommendations.
But Limon — who had served in the city for just 19 months, less than half of the four years stipulated by his contract — was rumored to have missed his family back in the Windy City, and clashed with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. over management of the department. At the same time, the Elm City’s homicide count was at 27 by mid-October, and would rise to a two-decade high of 34 by the end of the year.
It was in this environment that DeStefano, exactly two years ago tomorrow, announced that Esserman, the then-top cop of Providence, R.I., would be brought back to lead the department. In the early 1990s Esserman had served under former chief Nick Pastore, who resigned after admitting to fathering a child with a convicted prostitute. He is regarded as one of the architects of New Haven’s community policing strategy, which encourages officers to walk beats and pushes cops to engage more with the neighborhoods they police.
That philosophy allegedly helped bring down crime rates 20 years ago. But when Esserman was appointed chief, people questioned whether he could perform the same miracle. Given the environment of constantly changing police chiefs and increasing numbers of violent crime, as well as the relatively opaque process of Limon’s departure and Esserman’s subsequent appointment, many in the city were skeptical.
But two years later, the majority of those voices have been quelled. At this point, Esserman has served longer than the two police chiefs who preceded him and has shown no intention of leaving any time soon. Violent crime as a whole has fallen since 2011 — even though experts warn against reading too much into any one statistic — and the New Haven Police Department has worked toward improving partnerships with groups like the University’s police force, the Yale Child Study Center and neighborhood management groups.
At a July debate between five mayoral candidates, there wasn’t a whole lot they agreed on; in fact, the group fell into one of the feistiest squabbles of the campaign. But when the mayoral hopefuls were asked what departments heads they would keep, all five responded by naming Esserman, a sign of how the police chief has largely earned the city’s trust.
At a Monday Yale Law School forum, Esserman spoke about the causes of urban violence, demonstrating that he understood the complex mix of factors that can lead to a shooting: poverty, intergroup dynamics, a justice system that is not truly blind. Yet he also spoke about his personal relationship with the sort of tragedy that so regularly strikes New Haven and other cities across America.
He’s tired, he says; tired of the violence that seems to be the same story every night. For two decades, he explains, he’s visited every shooting scene and emergency room, and has attended — and paid for — far more than his fair share of funerals. But still, he keeps working.
That he has received the law enforcement award just two years after his arrival is a testament to this tiredness. While his tenure is far from perfect, Esserman is the police chief New Haven needs right now, and he deserves both his award and our ongoing support as he works to better the Elm City.
Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this column misstated the number of homicides in New Haven for 2011 as 36, when it should have said 34.