Candidates outline public safety approaches

Three homicides in three weeks. Though the city’s overall crime rates have declined over the past few years, this recent spate of violence highlights public safety as one of the most pressing issues facing New Haven today. And while there may be more hot-button issues consuming the campaign, the city’s next mayor must find new ways to bring crime down.

When Mayor John DeStefano Jr. assumed office in January 1994, he inherited a city more crime-ridden than it is today. He chose to tackle crime mainly through indirect means, focusing on economic development efforts as well as improving public housing and the city’s education system.

“These are not crime issues, but they certainly affect crime rates,” New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman said about the legacy DeStefano leaves behind. “A mayor doesn’t need to just be supportive of a police department. He needs to be supportive of programs that make people feel like this is a viable city for them.”

More recently, DeStefano has pursued innovative police tactics, most notably a community policing strategy that many have credited with lowering the city’s crime rate. In his first year in office, the city saw 32 homicide victims; so far in his last, the city has only seen 17.

Falling crime rates help create the secure community city officials seek. The New Haven Chief Administrative Officer’s 2013 report on the NHPD shows that, in 1990, the violent crime rate in New Haven of almost 32 percent sat at 331 percent above the national mean. In the 23 years that followed, most of them falling under DeStefano’s tenure, these numbers fell to just below 16 percent and 272 percent above the national mean. Similarly, property crime rates in the city were cut by more than half relative to those throughout the country, from 164 percent above the national mean to 72.3 percent.

The progress is apparent — its significance gives weight to the strategies that have been implemented by the mayor’s office in conjunction with the NHPD and Chief Dean Esserman. But New Haven leaders agree that the fight against crime in this historically gang-troubled city endures, and that it is up to DeStefano’s successor, be it Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 or Toni Harp ARC ’78, to continue what worked and to fix what did not.

“As I look at homicides, look at shootings, shots reported — they’re all heading in the right direction, down substantial margins [in the last two years,]” DeStefano said at a NHPD press conference following the Oct. 28 homicide of Deran Maebery, New Haven’s 17th homicide victim of 2013. “I wish I could promise or see a day that there’s going to be no violence in this city. I don’t see that day right now.” 

A NEW ERA IN PUBLIC SAFETY

Twenty years ago, around the time when DeStefano was first elected, the NHPD implemented a new policing strategy meant to reconnect the city’s neighborhoods with police. The concept behind community policing is simple: scatter cops throughout the city on walking beats, forcing them to immerse themselves into local neighborhoods and connect with the people and cultures that make each unique.

Over the years, however, as various NHPD chiefs filtered through 1 Union Ave., the number of cops being placed on walking beats dwindled, while the Department began to shift its focus elsewhere. When Esserman became the department’s chief in late 2011, he immediately sought to revive and revamp the program, dispatching officers back to the neighborhoods with which the Department hopes to establish human relationships.

Under Esserman, the first beat cops hit the streets in late 2011. That year, the city saw 34 homicides. By 2012, that number had been cut in half.

“Walking beats are back now, more than ever,” Hartman said. “There’s a connection again with the community, and a trust has been built.”

Still, both Elicker and Harp want more. When asked to describe their respective public safety platforms, both candidates began by calling for more officers on walking beats.

“Every neighborhood in this city needs to feel a strong sense of safety. And that safety is based in a partnership between the Police and the community,” Elicker said.

Harp echoed her opponent’s thoughts by saying that she hopes to “link, in a real and meaningful way, the community with community policing.” One way to help do this, Harp said, is to ensure the creation of solid block watch systems in which the community members themselves take on an active role in city policing programs. Elicker agreed, and added that block watch programs help encourage citizens to report crimes to the NHPD.

James Forman, a Yale Law Professor who studies innovations in policing, said that the relationships that beat cops create with their neighborhoods — rather than the mere increase in police presence — is the aspect of community policing that makes it so successful.

“You can be present in cars. In some ways, the theory of cars was, in part, that you could establish more of a visible presence. You can cover more territory, and so there’s a certain inefficiency in walking,” Forman said. “Community policing is really much more about the building of relationships, the breaking down of the historic distrust between police and citizens and having people think ‘there’s somebody who is invested in the overall health of this community.’”

Because these bonds take time to form, proponents of the tactic acknowledge it can be hard to gauge the success of community policing this early into its reintroduction.

“It’s been two years, so I think it’s still a little too soon to start patting ourselves on the back,” Hartman said. “But it seems that these programs are working. We’re seeing the results of them already.”

DIFFERENT APPROACHES 

While both support community policing, the two candidates have also emphasized different approaches to public safety.

Like DeStefano, Elicker believes that attracting new businesses to the city will bring more jobs, and provide alternatives to crime for at-risk youth and adults. Specifically, Elicker said he would aim to attract new developers and businesses to the Elm City and bolster training programs for existing jobs, including those in the promising New Haven biotech sector, via certificate training programs.

“Unemployment is a major driver of crime. When people are really struggling to get by, then there’s just more of a likelihood that people may resort to crime,” Elicker said. “Making sure that people have more opportunities for jobs is critical.”

Teens commit a large proportion of crime in New Haven, a fact that Elicker hopes to address by expanding access to after-school programs like Boys and Girls Clubs, Youth Rights Media and Solar Youth. As such, Elicker said that these programs not only give children ways to pass time safely, but also expose them to positive relationships and role models. Elicker mentioned gaps and redundancies in existing programs and their uneven geographic distribution as issues he’d like to address.

“We need to have productive places for our kids to go, where they can be around mentors and learning and growing and having fun,” Elicker said. “There are a lot of youth programs in the city already, but they’re not coordinated as well as they should be.”

While Elicker plans to approach crime reduction by engaging residents in other activities, Harp has outlined plans to address crime by optimizing public safety forces and increasing gun control. Though Harp’s support for community policing speaks to her desire to involve the community in its own betterment, she has displayed a stronger attention to public safety from the top down than her opponent.

According to the public safety position listed on Harp’s official campaign website, she plans to boost recruiting efforts through early training programs and in-city living incentives for officers.

Harp added that reducing shootings and homicides is her top priority in public safety, and that she plans to do so by restricting access to firearms.

“The first thing I want to do is to reduce the number of shooting deaths in our town,” she said. “To take the guns out of the hands of our young people and those citizens who would use them in any other fashion than recreational hunting and target practice in a club.”

Still, Harp insists on her hopes to engage the community and open citizens up to the police force that she says is there to help them. Part of why Harp sees the need to reallocate the City’s existing public safety resources is that she values the community’s trust in the NHPD, which can be helped by collaboration through community policing efforts.

“You really have to engage the people in our community, [and make sure that they are] learning how to be safe,” Harp said. “The community has to feel these [officers] are people who relate to them, who understand their goals and aspirations and who actually function together to keep each other, in many respects, safe.”

A CULTURE OF SAFETY

Citizens interviewed in the wake of various New Haven crimes throughout the city in the past few weeks generally said that they have accepted the fact that New Haven is more crime-riddled than the average American city. Still, they all voiced a desire to see something more done about it.

Like the candidates, every resident interviewed supported ramping up community policing efforts.

“A lot more beat walkers. A lot more cops on foot, going door to door and talking to people,” said Brian Gerena, a 35-year-old East Rock resident. “They get more insight, too, that way. They talk more to people, and people can explain to them what they think can be done.”

One element of public safety that often gets overlooked is the public’s perception of its own safety — a community at peace is not just one that is relatively immune to homicides or shootings, but is also one whose residents can live their lives free of the stress caused by the constant threat of crime.

Mark Abraham ’04, executive director of Data Haven, maintains that long-term crime rates tell a bleaker story than the rosy picture painted by DeStefano and Hartman. Since crime rates have only been declining for the past few years, it is difficult for residents to detect lasting change. As a result, the majority of local adults still feel unsafe at night, Abraham said — and to have a truly safe New Haven, the next mayor must find a way to both fight crime and to put at ease its residents’ minds.

“To make the city a healthier place and reduce crime problems more fundamentally, we need to improve perceptions of safety for all, not simply reduce the number of reported crimes,” Abraham said. “Over time, hopefully the combination of programs and policies within the city will lead residents to feel safer spending time outdoors in their neighborhoods, even if the actual number of reported crimes remains flat.”

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