New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis is convinced the city will soon see the results of his new policing strategy. But so far this year, the fluctuating levels of crime are working against him.
Speaking from behind the podium of the New Haven Police Department conference room on the fourth floor, Chief Lewis announced the city’s crime statistics from January through September of this year. The bad news is clear: Compared to last year, homicides have increased 73 percent, from 11 to 19.
Lewis said the downturn of the economy is hitting New Haven hard, causing foreclosures, boarded-up neighborhoods, and spikes in the burglary and larceny rates. While the number of violent crimes in the city fell slightly, shootings continued to be an issue for police, especially in minority communities. Lewis said he hopes that the restoration of community policing and an aggressive focus on quality-of-life issues will ultimately reduce crime.
Violent crime — which includes rapes, robberies and assaults — is down 2 percent overall, according to the department’s report. Still, it is at the top of Lewis’ concerns.
“Violent crime is down as a whole, which is a surprise to most people,” he said. “But we do have a serious problem, which is concentrated in a small portion of our community.”
According to the department’s report, 79 percent of shooting victims are African-American, the majority of them age 16-31. Nearly as many, 74 percent, are convicted felons, the report states.
Lewis blamed this problem on a cycle of prison and crime. Twenty to 30 convicts released weekly from the New Haven Corrections Department and federal prisons into New Haven “go right back to the same lifestyle they had before,” Lewis said. To combat this trend, the police have begun discussions with the NAACP considering one-on-one mentoring programs and job training as parolees and convicts come out of the system, Lewis added.
The rise in homicides comes at the same time as a drop in the number of shootings. Lewis said he sees this as a good sign, suggesting that the rise in homicides stems more from bad luck than rampant violence.
“I’ve seen someone get shot in the knee with a .22 and die, and someone get hit in the chest with a .45 and survive,” he said.
Lewis also addressed critics of his prostitution crackdown who say he is diverting too many valuable resources. He pointed out that although a prostitution sting takes 10 officers, it takes up very little of the Department’s time overall.
Root crimes — prostitution, drugs and traffic violations — are at the heart of the Chief’s new quality-of-life strategy, which he detailed thoroughly.
“Children are growing up in neighborhoods with either prostitution or drugs, with sex acts, needles or condoms, and they grow up thinking these things are OK,” Lewis said. “Why should we be shocked when they have a warped value system?”
He said that unless the police work to change those parameters, nothing would change. The recently reinstated NHPD Narcotics Unit is part of Lewis’ push to confront this.
Narcotics arrests have decreased nearly 20 percent, down 268 from last year. Lewis said this was expected, but complimented the state narcotics task force, which has been filling in for the last 18 months. The city’s narcotics unit was disbanded following a scandal in March 2007.
But, he said, they had trouble targeting the lower-level drug dealers who directly affect communities.
Lewis stated that gun seizures have also fallen this year from 215 to 190, though he noted that the rates were roughly the same when a bulk seizure of 30 guns last year was not counted. Lewis said the Department would continue to work with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies to fight illegal firearms. But he stressed that behavior, not guns, was at the heart of the problem.
“We have 300 million guns in America today,” he said. “If I had $10,000 dollars to give out for each gun that was brought in, I would get all the guns. But 24 hours later, they would be right back again.”
Lewis sees the quality-of-life crimes as the problem the Department must address because they eat away at the fabric of communities. He cited an example of a 13-year-old who was recently accosted on the street and asked to perform sex acts.
“She thinks we don’t care, and she and others won’t respect us or help us in the future,” Lewis said. “We are going to send a clear message: We do care. And we will earn back their respect.”
Lewis’ quality-of-life strategy is also called the “broken windows” theory, and has been applied in major cities across America. It essentially states that delinquent behavior is encouraged when a window is broken and left unfixed. By targeting even the minor crimes, overall crime rates should decline, the theory follows.
Many experts attribute the strategy to New York City’s precipitous crime decline in the 1990s. Now Lewis will see if he can apply it to New Haven.