The New Haven Police Department will find it more difficult to be a community police force after the recent layoffs of 16 officers.
This was the conclusion of NHPD Lt. Ray Hassett in a discussion with the News at a police-community dialogue session at Barnard School on Derby Ave. Wednesday night. He said that neighborhood relationships are integral to successful policing, and that young officers — the most junior of whom were laid off in February as a cost-cutting move — are often the best at bonding with city residents.
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“A lot of those 16 officers were the ones who had developed relationships with the young guys in the neighborhood. We lost a lot of talent with those 16 badges,” he said.
As part of Chief Frank Limon’s public push to improve community-police relations, the chief went before the assembly with 10 other officers to report back on the NHPD response to previous criticisms. But while the chief admitted his department could do better, he challenged each attendee to take charge of the city’s crime situation.
“Behind this badge, I’m the father of two kids with a wife at home. We need to go home to our families at night,” the chief told a group of Dwight residents after the attendees had split up by neighborhood. “So we need you to reclaim your neighborhoods, and it starts block by block.”
Limon began the dialogue by describing the way he has personally tried to change the NHPD in response to criticisms he received during similar community meetings in December. He said his four main changes were the inclusion of federal agencies in more joint task forces, improving the department’s Internal Affairs sector, creating youth programs, and overhauling the NHPD communications system. He said that these changes have been mostly successful, but that residents may not be able to immediately notice the changes.
But despite these positive steps, many community members were quick to suggest new ways that Limon could improve the safety of their neighborhoods.
John Jones, a Dwight resident, along with several of his neighbors, suggested community nights where officers and young people can talk together over pizza. He was one of many attendees who focused on programs for children and ways that the police can become involved with youth.
But other Dwight residents agreed with Limon’s assessment of the limited ability of the police, and said they did not want to rely on the NHPD to fix their communities.
“I think we tend to forget that the police do not have supernatural powers. It is our responsibility to know our neighborhood,” Dwight resident Gary Lynes said.
Residents spent much of the evening identifying other problems with the NHPD’s goals for community involvement. West River resident Aaron Darden asked the chief how the department would be able to face the “crime epidemic” in the face of 16 recent officer layoffs.
High school student Evelyn Folson said, however, that extra officers would not necessarily help the situation because her neighborhood stigmatizes talking with any police officer as a sign of “snitching.”
“Our young men are getting locked up. You [the NHPD] are the bad guy, so talking with you would be wrong,” she said to a small group of Beaver Hill residents and police officers from that district.
Sherrick “Stixx” Johnson laughed at Folson’s comment, later telling the News that Wednesday night was the first time in his life he felt comfortable speaking with a police officer.
Feeling comfortable with the police, Limon said after the event, was the point of the evening. Once there is a comfort level between the two groups, he added, the community and the NHPD can focus on bringing ideas to fruition.
“We’re all in this together, and we need to have a mutual respect.” Limon said at the start of the dialogue. “At the end of the day, we all want one thing — a safe neighborhood.”
Community Mediation, the group that co-sponsored the dialogue, estimated that Wednesday evening drew 50 percent more people than in similar talks in the winter.