I didn’t realize until the end of the hour that the four boys sitting across the table from me were all juvenile offenders who had been given the afternoon off to attend a small anti-violence community meeting at the Stetson Branch Library on Dixwell Avenue. None of them could have been older than 13; all four spoke with a combination of bravado and shyness common to any group of children faced with a room full of adults. They talked about sports, and arts and crafts and puzzles, and getting into fights. And then the facilitator asked the boys how they felt about asking the police for help.
The response was immediate and unequivocal. The first boy to speak explained that he would never go to a cop because “when they arrested me, they put pepper spray in my eyes for no reason.” The next two boys said that “I just don’t believe cops,” and “I just don’t like cops … ’cause they’re mean.” I struggle to imagine any situation in which the police would find themselves required to use pepper spray to restrain a 12-year-old. But it is easy to understand why a 12-year-old, no matter how much he regretted his actions, would hate the police forever for pepper-spraying him.
That’s bad news for everyone who is concerned about violence and the future of New Haven. It’s true that crime has fallen sharply since the inception of community policing programs in New Haven in 1990. Even with this decline, the New Haven Police still face enormous challenges, as do most urban patrols; on the night that the Board of Aldermen visited police headquarters in January, the department had to deal with a gun shop robbery and a rash of suspicious fires. But in the long term, the biggest obstacle to a successful fight against crime is probably still trust.
New Haven’s entire policing program is designed to eliminate that lack of trust. Throughout the years, the New Haven police have instituted countless community-building programs aimed at getting drugs and guns off the streets and creating stronger relationships between police and neighborhoods. The city is divided into 10 districts, each with its own substation and district manager whose pager number is prominently displayed on the Police Department Web site. But it’s impossible to tell how many New Haven residents actually have those pager numbers, and how many would actually call them.
In neighborhoods like Dixwell, calling the police may seem like a waste of time. When drug dealers adjust their schedules to avoid police patrols, and speeding monitors can’t stop dangerous crashes, one of the boys said that the only way to keep his neighborhood safe would be to “post army men around the houses.” New Haven residents worry that the police don’t take them seriously, especially on streets where block watches have fallen apart. Calling the police may be risky when the target of the call is one’s own neighbors. And there is the sense, strongly expressed by some of the adults at the Stetson Library meeting, that the police sometimes do more harm than good; they see the police as people who lock up former offenders who carry guns because they have no other means of protecting themselves and use pepper spray on children.
This break between the police and the community badly needs to be repaired. Most cops, and certainly all those who I’ve met during my time in New Haven, are good people who are deeply committed to making their city a safer place. Most people want drug-dealing, speeding and shootings to end in their neighborhoods for good. I don’t have the answers, but there must be some way of restarting these conversations, of convincing community members and the police to make commitments to each other again. The police need to know that the community will come to them and not let criminal activity continue out of fear or mistrust, and the community needs to feel that the police take them and their concerns seriously. If that commitment cannot be made, it will come at a terrible cost to New Haven’s most vulnerable and valuable citizens: its children. The price that we all pay as a result, in diminished trust, increased crime and loss of innocence is simply too high to bear.