NHPD investigates slur

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Photo by Max Budovitch.

The City of New Haven and the New Haven Police Department have been taking punitive measures after a racial slur was said on police radio, in an attempt to find the unknown caller and reform any lingering racial tensions at the police department.

The city has taken steps designed to identify and punish the offender, who said the word “nigger,” on a law enforcement apparatus’ airwaves at 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 30.

NHPD spokesman David Hartman said in a Tuesday interview that, while he and the force had not completely ruled out the possibility that an NHPD officer had uttered the pejorative, the police department believes that either a police officer from a neighboring municipality or an NHPD police officer’s acquaintance had done so instead.

The city’s police radio system — which anyone with a two-way “transceiver” radio available at many commercial outlets and the NHPD frequency available online can access — had never experienced this before. According to Hartman, when an officer comes on the tape generally a radio number or name comes up. However, in this case, such identification was absent.

“Nothing came up on this one, which makes us very suspicious that this may not have been a New Haven police officer,” Hartman said.

Still, the New Haven Police Department has since launched an internal investigation, even enlisting help from the FBI for voice recognition. In addition, officers must now identify themselves and state their car number and beat number when speaking into the radio. Internal Affairs Director Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’09 said Police Chief Dean Esserman now requires officers to attend sensitivity and diversity training. The number of training hours has been extended from two to three hours per annum in the wake of this incident. Campbell added that the city could benefit in the long run from the increased introspection that has followed the “hateful and deliberate” remark.

“It’s opened up some good discussion and the feedback was extremely positive,” he said. “Now there’s communication on a level that wasn’t before the incident happened.”

New Haven residents’ reactions to the NHPD’s response were varied. Some had a similarly generous take on the event and its aftermath, as well as the Police Department in general.

The NAACP community is “somewhat pleased with the aggressiveness of Chief Esserman” in trying to identify the unknown caller, said Jim Rawlings, the President of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP.

Rawlings met with Chief Esserman on Tuesday morning, and pledged to address the issue collaboratively.

At this meeting, Rawlings and Esserman agreed to bring in professionals to support the sensitivity and diversity training.“If someone is saying these words, it’s a symptom of an element of racism in the police department … that may manifest itself in how police interact with our community,” Rawlings said.

Rawlings added “We need to excise this cancer.”

However, Ward 12 Alder Richard Spears said that the episode and its aftermath were the result of a police department that was “corrupt” and “prejudiced in its actions,” and that he had serious doubts regarding both the thoroughness of the department’s investigation and the aggressiveness of its response.

According to the New Haven Independent, Harp responded immediately, meeting with several fraternal groups of African-American police officers to hear their concerns.

City Hall Spokesman Laurence Grotheer said the mayor was pleased with Chief Esserman’s “prompt and very thorough” response, and hopes the controversy will be resolved.

Among Harp’s constituents, indifference seemed to carry the day. Of 10 New Haven residents interviewed on or near the New Haven Green Tuesday, none said they had heard of the incident. Tom Chambers, a New Haven resident who said he is of white, Dominican and African-American heritage, called using racial slurs “a part of human nature,” comparing it to the slurs leveled at the Irish and Italians in the early 20th century.

“Racism is all over—you’re not going to stop it,” he said. “Let’s not blow this out of proportion.”

According to the 2010 Census, 35.6 percent of New Haven residents are black, and minorities make up 57.4 percent of the population as a whole.

Isabelle Taft contributed reporting.

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