Policing in New Haven is changing, and not for the better. Police Chief James Lewis and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. unveiled their new approach to crime fighting, Targeted Activity Policing, on Thursday.
This strategy focuses on rooting out specific problems, like prostitution, street crime and even speeding, by using, in Lewis’ words, “aggressive enforcement” in certain areas of the city. In addition to a new traffic enforcement squad and a revamped narcotics squad, Lewis’ strategy makes use of “metro street crime units,” plain-clothes officers and detectives who will not respond to emergencies as they arise, but rather go to certain areas in search of targeted activities.
TAP also ends community policing in New Haven. Community policing developed as a response to the zero-tolerance approach of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whereas zero-tolerance policies use arrests to fight low-level crime like graffiti, squatting and minor drug dealing, community policing prioritizes positive interaction between police officers and citizens. Instead of focusing on arrests, police are charged with walking beats and helping people access social services, including needle exchanges. Ideally, under this model, police will not only prevent problems through their presence, but will also be better equipped to deal with them if they arise.
But community policing in New Haven was not living up to this ideal. As Lewis explained at Thursday’s press conference, the term had taken on so many meanings — walking beats has at times been reduced to driving cars with the (now outdated) slogan “Committed to Community Policing,” and some think community policing means not making arrests — that it has become meaningless. But the solution is not to end the program entirely.
Furthermore, the new program seems too similar to the zero tolerance borne out of the popular “broken windows” theory. Heavy traffic enforcement is a new tactic in New Haven, but a street crime and prostitution crackdown isn’t. And it is unlikely that the problems from that era will disappear; it’s hard to have strict enforcement without an overworked court and prison system, allegations of police brutality and poor relationships between communities and officers.
While DeStefano and Lewis claim they are not focused on making arrests — instead just the “right arrests” — it is only a matter of time before they begin to add up.
Moreover, although the city has taken bold steps through its prisoner re-entry initiatives (such as the Board of Aldermen’s Human Services Committee’s recent vote in favor of the “ban the box” ordinance, which would eliminate a question about criminal history on city employment applications), life after incarceration remains difficult, and the reconviction rate is 39 percent for the state as a whole.
Relationships between police and citizens have already eroded due to heavier enforcement. For instance, in an attempt to reduce crime in the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver management district, Lt. Leo Bombalicki compiled a list of 25 men he wanted to track and eventually push out of the neighborhood, posting their mug shots on a wall of his substation. All were black and Bombalicki referred to them as an “organized problem … a gang,” though none are currently wanted for any crime. When the New Haven Independent broke the story Jan. 21, after Bombalicki revealed them to the WEB management team, citizens in the district were outraged.
Nine days later, protesters took to the streets demanding the pictures be torn down. Though the mug shots were removed from the wall of the substation, the wound remains. So do the allegations of racial profiling. While the management teams were created as a forum for dialogue between the police and the citizenry they serve, the tacit acceptance of Bombalicki’s tactics at the January WEB meeting has split the district. Consequently, many members did not feel compelled to show up at the next meeting, driving a further wedge between police and community. Although the WEB wall might be an isolated incident, when coupled with Lewis’s new tactics, even the seemingly benign ones like stricter traffic enforcement, the overall feeling is one of mistrust.
Lewis is right to want to change the NHPD. After all, he inherited a department devastated by corruption and lacking accountability. That he is willing to take bold moves to make it happen is also good.
But the answer to a broken, ill-defined community policing system is to repair it, not to do away with it entirely.
Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.