Police are calling it a new day for the department, but this step forward may involve a long look back.
In the three months since the July appointment of New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis, city residents have seen significant changes in the way their streets are being policed. With highly publicized undercover prostitution stings and the continued internal restructuring of police units, the NHPD is heading down a new path of policing — a path that Lewis has said will be more “aggressive” than the policing methods of recent years.
But it remains to be seen where this reformed method of law enforcement will fit into a history of New Haven policing marked by both unforgiving enforcement and more recent community-oriented efforts.
Barbara Fair, an organizer at the local criminal-justice reform agency People Against Injustice, said she and her fellow residents are concerned that these new “aggressive” measures are a shift away from the department’s commitment to community policing, and is instead a return to the hostile brand of policing used by the NHPD in the 1980s, a law enforcement methodology epitomized by the “beat-down posse.”
Before the onset of community policing in the 1990s, the work of the “beat-down posse” — a van of cops who assailed and arrested neighborhood youths at random — was one of several aggressive police measures that reigned supreme on New Haven streets. The posse’s tactics, which aimed to target rampant drug trafficking and gang violence, included apprehending and assaulting groups of teenagers loitering on street corners without warrants or probable cause for arrest.
These aggressive law enforcement tactics were eventually traded in for more compassionate community policing attitudes that have now become a widely praised feature of today’s NHPD.
Although Lewis’ call for a more “aggressive” approach may sound all too familiar to the “beat-down posse’s” former detractors, NHPD officers and city leaders insist that Lewis’ strategy for the department is a far cry from the combative tactics employed in the ’80s.
‘BEAT-DOWNS’: A HISTORY
It was called the “beat-down posse.” And roughing up New Haven residents — especially young black males in low-income neighborhoods — was what the “beat-down posse” did best.
“It was a name that came from the street,” said Paul Bass ’82, a reporter for the New Haven Independent and School of Management lecturer currently teaching an undergraduate course on New Haven history. “It was a more militaristic approach to policing.”
The notorious methods of the “beat-down posse” pitted NHPD officers against members of the community.
According to a 1991 New York Times article entitled “Policing New Haven: Patrols and Politics — A Special Report,” a squad of NHPD officers would regularly hide from view in a van — called the “stud bus” by the officers — in order to jump out and arrest or assail teenage boys standing on the corners of poor New Haven neighborhoods.
During this period, Bass said, police brutality was encouraged, and the department hired or fired officers based on their willingness to apply rough law enforcement tactics in New Haven neighborhoods.
NHPD officers relied heavily on the department’s robust canine unit, using vicious police dogs to intimidate people walking on the streets, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah said. Residents became “terrified” of being confronted by the dogs, he said.
These tactics created bad blood between community members and NHPD officers. Residents were unwilling to provide information to police officers, helping perpetuate the rise of drug trafficking and street violence within the city, Bass said.
“People who were law abiding lost faith in the police,” he said.
But police officers such as Police Union President Sgt. Louis Cavalier Sr. and Spokesman Officer Joe Avery said Lewis is not looking back to the policing style of the 1980s.
New Haven in the 1980s was a very different city, Cavalier said, a place where gang and drug violence wreaked havoc on New Haven streets. The only way to deal with the overwhelming crime was to use harsher methods that were more appropriate in that time period, he said.
“Locking people up with the beat-down posse, you can’t do that in this day and age,” Cavalier said. “But you’re talking about the ’80s. It was a different climate.”
According to the New York Times, the reported number of annual murders in New Haven rose from 23 to 34 between 1987 and 1989.
The brutal methodology of the “beat-down posse” ended in the early 1990s, when then-newly inaugurated Mayor John Daniels — the first black mayor of New Haven — ousted the existing chief of police and replaced him with Nicholas Pastore. Pastore dissolved the “beat-down posse” and canine units, replacing them with a methodology steeped in the idea of community policing.
Pastore hired more female, black and gay police officers and instituted social-welfare programs such as a needle-exchange and psychiatric services for children who had witnessed violence, according to Bass. He established stronger intelligence units to put major New Haven drug dealers in jail.
The NHPD’s holistic approach to law enforcement in the 1990s contrasted starkly with the forceful techniques of the previous decade, Bass said, and taught officers that preemptive tactics — addressing community problems before citizens turned to crime — were the true sign of success.
“In the ’90s, arrests were seen as a sign of failure,” Bass said.
But Cavaliere said the shift toward community policing was made possible only by the hostile methods of earlier years, as the new approach helped counter residents’ hostility toward officers.
Before officers were able to form a relationship with neighborhood residents, it was necessary to “rid the element of danger” in communities, Cavaliere said. Only then — after methods like the “beat-down posse” took care of major street crime — could police move towards community policing tactics.
A NEW DIRECTION
But some in the community wonder whether Lewis’ new “aggressive” policies are signaling a return to militaristic law enforcement styles from older days of the NHPD. In a July 25 article about a press conference between Lewis and members of the Dixwell community, the New Haven Independent reported that Lewis said NHPD officers “are not social workers,” and said he planned to instruct officers to use more “aggressive” methods, although he explained that the “aggressive” measures he had in mind were not “excessive.”
Since the late 1990s, NHPD officials have strayed from the path of community policing, Fair said, adding that Lewis’ appointment is the latest step in the city’s shift from community-oriented law enforcement.
“The police are now so aggressive and disrespectful,” Fair said. “I think the new chief thinks he’s going to gain respect by intimidating the community. It’s a slap in the face to members of the community.”
After Pastore’s appointment, Fair said, officers would play basketball with local children in order to build relationships with the community. Now, she said, police barely interact with New Haven youths unless they are handing them bicycle citations.
Lewis leans heavily on “intimidation tactics” that only address acts of crime, rather than the roots of crime, Fair said. The new chief needs to focus more on tackling the sources of crime, such as unemployment and the lack of community resources for the mentally ill, she said.
But Cavaliere maintained that Lewis’ new plans are not a return to the “beat-down posses” of the past, but rather “bringing back policing to the 21st century,” he said. He said that many of Lewis’ ideas for the NHPD, such as the return of the canine unit, are “very effective and necessary” steps toward improving the quality with which NHPD vehicles will be able to police.
“I see Chief Lewis as 100 percent cop,” he added. “He’s a cop’s cop.”
Bass said he does not think Lewis is planning on returning to any of the tactics made famous by the “beat-down posse.” But he said he certainly believes the NHPD is beginning to move away from its commitment to a traditional style of community policing and shifting toward a new direction — a hybrid between community and militaristic law enforcement. This shift is evident, Bass said, in Lewis’ fervor to tackle quality-of-life issues in manners such as the NHPD’s recent bout of undercover prostitution stings.
“There’s no evidence that we’re returning to unaccountable policing. The department under Lewis seems professional and well-managed,” Bass said. “It’s not the ‘beat-down posse,’ but it’s also not community policing. It’s neither model.”
Shah maintained that Lewis’ new policing methods, though more direct than the community policing tactics of years past, could mean only positive changes for the city. Shah said he does not support police brutality or misconduct, but he explained that city officials need to become tougher on crime if they plan to make New Haven neighborhoods safer.
“We’re going to have to be firm, fair and consistent. We are going to have to do things to catch people in the act,” Shah said. “We need a strong stance against these types of activities.”