Soon after the Yale Police Department released its 2008 crime statistics, the FBI called. They wanted to know what was going on at Yale University.
“They called us up and asked: ‘What happened?’ ” Yale Police Department Chief James Perrotti said last week at a session of the Citizen’s Police Academy.
The YPD had just reported an unprecedented drop in 2008 crime incidents to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report. The number of burglaries, larcenies and bike thefts all fell by double-digits, and the overall crime rate was the lowest since the department starting keeping records in 1984. What the FBI wanted to know was: What strategy could have produced the record-lows?
The strategy, Yale police say, is the department’s commitment to community policing, where officers are pushed out of their offices and patrol cars and onto the streets to interact with the people the seek to protect. The idea is to create a culture in which crime is unacceptable.
Over the past year, Perrotti has expanded such efforts with a blitz of e-mails, pamphlets, patrols and meetings. Since Chief James Lewis took the helm of the New Haven Police Department in July, the NHPD has sought to do the same, employing crackdowns on prostitution, drugs and quality of life violations.
But it remains to be seen whether what worked for Yale can work for New Haven.
THE START OF A TRADITION
The Yale Police Department would not have existed without community policing.
In 1894, tensions between Yale students and New Haven had come to a head; riots and clashes between city police and students were common. After a rumor spread that Yale medical students had raided local cemeteries for bodies to use for experiments, a mass riot left many students and citizens wounded. The campus, Yale and New Haven officials decided, needed its own police force.
The New Haven police chief posted a wanted notice for officers to volunteer to police the University campus. All of two officers showed up for duty. But, as the saying goes, history is made by those who show up.
Facing initial skepticism and indifference, the two officers, Bill Wiser and Jim Donnelly, depended on building trust with students. But as Wiser wrote of the students in his memoir, “They, one and all, from freshmen to seniors, never lost an opportunity to make us realize that we were not wanted.”
But over the course of years, officers won the students’ respect, YPD Lt. Michael Patten recounted. As opposed to many New Haven officers, Wiser and Donnelly could almost never be found in police headquarters. Every day they would be out pounding the pavement around the campus, on the lookout both for trouble and for conversation. A police officer’s only contact with the community, they believed, should not involve handcuffs.
A century later, Patten, who has held virtually every position in the department during his YPD career, said he believes there is no other way to police. “People talk about traditional policing versus community policing,” he said in an interview. “Hey, wake up! Traditional policing is community policing, you just forgot.”
E-MAILS, PAMPHLETS AND … RAIDS?
Community policing in New Haven may have gotten a later start — when NHPD Chief Nicholas Pastore in 1990 took a departure from the “beat-down posses” of the ’80s in favor of more neighborhood interaction — but YPD’s success had clearly become apparent to the NHPD.
“The fact is that crime has been too high for too long in New Haven,” Lewis said in an interview, stressing a need for a policing strategy different from the one used in both the ’80s and ’90s.
In the past couple years, Perrotti’s well-known crime alert e-mails have increased in frequency, and officers are handing out Safety Tips pamphlets, with some even disguised as parking tickets and left on cars. Several officers joked about how many have been handed out in the past year — “only 50,000,” Patten quipped — but none doubted their effectiveness.
“They make sure the community is involved,” YPD Patrol Officer Grace Schenkel said, “and that reduces the opportunities for crimes to occur.”
But whereas Perrotti’s strategy has made use of increased communication of crimes as a means to deter them, Lewis has taken a similar — though more assertive — approach. Lewis has been vocal in drawing a distinction between community policing and soft policing, once saying that police officers are not social workers.
Targeting small crimes can prevent larger ones, Lewis said, explaining that criminals should be caught before stabbings or shootings occur. Prostitution stings and the reinstatement of a narcotics unit to target drug dealing are recent initiatives that are part of his Targeted Activity Policing strategy. He has also called for assault rifles in most patrol cars and has revived a canine unit, which is currently training two dogs.
“Some of the neighborhoods have deteriorated with open drug selling, prostitution, gunfire, etc., and for people to be able to take pride in their neighborhoods and take them back, we have to work on these issues,” Lewis said.
Some have voiced concerns that some of Lewis’ proposals are returns to the brutal police tactics of the ’80s. And so far, despite the police forces’ similar initiatives, they have yet to produce similar results. Burglaries, larcenies and homicides all increased in New Haven last year from 2007 numbers.
In March, community activist Barbara Fair accused Lewis of trying to turn New Haven into a war zone. “Dogs and guns are the opposite of community policing,” she said.
SAME STRATEGY, DIFFERENT TACTICS
Yale School of Management professor Joseph Simmons, an economist who studies the interplay between environment and behavior, drew a comparison between police strategy and marketing tactics.
“We know that people’s behavior is largely determined by situational forces,” Simmons said in an interview. “Contexts that look more amenable to crime will encourage more crime.”
The police have to shift those contexts, he said. And despite different tactics, Lewis and Perrotti share this philosophy.
“Our mission is to demonstrate that we care and then do something about it,” YPD Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins said during the Citizen’s Police Academy.
On a college campus, “caring” entails pamphlets and meetings, Higgins explained. But on the streets of New Haven, the same ends may require more force.
Targeted raids and arrests can re-establish law and order in communities, he said. Lewis said he subscribes to the “broken windows” theory of policing, which states that low-level disorder, such as shattered glass, can encourage worse forms of crime if left in view.
At a news conference in October, Lewis mentioned a 13-year-old girl who had grown up as a witness to widespread prostitution. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken, he said.
“She thinks we don’t care, and she and others won’t respect us or help us in the future,” Lewis said at the conference. “We are going to send a clear message: We do care. And we will earn back their respect.”