As the New Haven Police Department shifts its strategy, the old policy of community policing is gone — but not forgotten.
Over 16 years ago, former New Haven Mayor John Daniels instated the philosophy of community policing to build community relationships with police officers in order to prevent crime. But NHPD Chief James Lewis announced just under three weeks ago a new crime-fighting policy called “Targeted Activity Policing,” which aims to increase police visibility and awareness of the law by cracking down on all infractions, no matter how severe.
“It’s not a focus on making a lot of arrests,” Lewis said in a speech to announce his new strategy. “It’s a focus on making the right arrests.”
Although several community members said the new policy undermines bonds forged between individual officers and the city residents, others, including candidates for the Ward 1 aldermanic seat, said Lewis’ new focus should not be immediately criticized.
In October, Lewis spoke of community policing as a “problem solving policing,” a largely reactive strategy to fighting crime. He explained at the time that both community interaction and NHPD’s aggressive tactics such as prostitution stings and drug raids were two sides of the same coin — both parts of a long process to help rebuild the foundation of safe neighborhoods.
Barbara Fair, a community activist for the local grass-roots organization People Against Injustice, dismissed the shift in strategy. By forsaking community policing, she said, the NHPD will damage the trust between police officers and members of the community.
By giving his police officers more latitude, Lewis —who took over as chief of police July 2008 — is instilling a mind-set that officers may use “whatever means necessary” to fight crime, Fair said. She cited the use of K-9 units and Lewis’ desire to have an assault rifle in every squad car as particularly harmful to the friendly aspects of community policing.
“Communities have lost trust in police officers,” she said. “He thinks when he came on he was going to change that, but … these fear tactics aren’t going to make the people respect the police officers any more than they do now.”
City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said community policing has evolved: The new tactics, she explained, are needed to refocus on the quality of life and safety of residents of New Haven. Given that 20 of the 22 homicides in 2008 were committed using firearms, it makes sense, she said, to refocus on aggressive tactics such as gun enforcement.
“We are acknowledging definitely that there are great parts of community policing,” she said, “but there are other things that need to change with the times. We are targeting activity in all parts of the city depending on the needs.”
Local area business owners and managers said that although New Haven police officers may not be as visible as they once were, this has not affected officers’ helpfulness. Theresa Hinckley, the manager of Celtica gift shop on College Street, said she has noticed the benefits of community policing in the past. She said there was always a police officer assigned to her area, adding that she is unsure about the new strategy.
“Since community policing was implemented, we’ve seen less sketchy characters,” she said.
But Bob Jacobson, owner of College Street Cycling, who has been in the downtown area for over eight years, said he never explicitly noticed a persistent police presence in the area.
Each of the three candidates for Ward 1 alderman said they are in favor of the community policing model and believe the strategy should not be done away with. Katie Harrison ’11, who has made the strategy an expressed priority in her platform, said there have been noticeable differences in NHPD tactics — changes that, she said, may not be in the city’s best interest.
“The fact that they’re de-emphasizing walking beats in neighborhoods in favor of having police officers more heavily armed and having dogs seems to indicate that they are moving away,” she said of the NHPD. “There should be a re-examination of the good things of community policing.”
Mike Jones ’11 and Minh Tran ’09 both said they were open to discussion about the issue. Jones said that in general, community policing is a well-ingrained philosophy that “won’t necessarily go away,” even in light of Lewis’ new strategy.
In reference to Lewis’ focus, Jones said: “We should sit back and give the policy some time.”
“The chief is obviously trying new things,” Tran added. “I think aggressive policing is great if it’s done respectfully.”