Bringing back what many people call community policing will not cure New Haven’s crime problem. Because it never really left.
Huh? Look here, supposedly knowledgeable crime columnist, you might say, it’s been well established that community policing in New Haven was dead. Media outlets declared its demise, city and police officials admitted as much and residents mourned its passing. Then Chief Dean Esserman was brought back to the city specifically to revive it. Why, even you, in a column just months ago, urged candidates in the Ward 1 aldermanic election to help bring back community policing.
All true — to a point. The death and revival of community policing has been the dominant narrative for New Haven policing, and a powerful one because it harkens back to the good old days of the 1990s when Esserman first helped implement community policing and sent crime plummeting. Who doesn’t want to root for the triumphant return of the good guys? But the narrative is an incomplete and only partially accurate one.
The current perception of community policing is of a strategy that mainly involves building trust for the police in neighborhoods by engaging with the community and solving conflicts before they become crimes. That strategy was indeed developed in the early 1990s, but the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Each of New Haven’s 10 police districts has a manager — he or she gets to know the neighborhood, its officers, its heroes and thugs and is given some measure of autonomy in making the strategy from headquarters match the needs of the district.
This decentralization is a key aspect of effective community policy and it never went away. Different district managers certainly do better or worse at implementing it, and lackluster leadership can lead some patrol officers away from community engagement. But go to any district’s monthly management meeting of police and residents to this day and you will see a largely cohesive partnership that fosters coordination and mutual respect. But none of that respect prevented last year’s 34 murders.
Okay, so if decentralization and community engagement aren’t what’s missing from the so-called return of community policing, then what is? Some might say walking beats — the return of set areas where officers patrol and interact with the community. Unlike neighborhood engagement, these actually have faded away in recent years. At his swearing-in ceremony, Esserman proudly announced that they would return, eliciting loud cheers and applause from the audience.
But though a very public symbol of community policing, are walking beats actually that central to the strategy’s crime reduction? The man who hired Esserman, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., didn’t think so in 2009, nor did the police chief, James Lewis. As Lewis told me at the time, “What we saw with foot patrols is that crime would move, but it would be just two blocks over. It never went away.” Lewis successfully cut crime by 10 percent and increased residents’ and cops’ confidence in the department without the much-heralded walking beats.
So not the walking beats. But what then? The answer is the often-overlooked aspect of 1990s community policing that goes against the approach’s public perception: sending the right people to jail. Using the combined resources of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the New Haven Drug Gang Task Force targeted and took out the city’s largest and most violent drug gangs. The arrests were often built on the intelligence gathered from community engagement, demonstrating to all that police would protect residents and that violence and drug dealing that paralyzed neighborhoods would not be tolerated.
The dual experiences of New Haven and New York confirm the necessity for the aggressive enforcement side of community policing. In the 1980s, each city’s police department was lost in the woods. The NHPD was relying on ineffective, faux-macho tactics such as the beat-down posse (speaks for itself), which aroused anger at the police and did little to fight crime. The NYPD was on the opposite track, forbidding patrol officers from making drug arrests and mandating community meetings over crime-fighting. This too aroused anger: residents wanted officers to actually fight crime, not just make nice. Former NYPD Chief William J. Bratton, Esserman’s mentor, finally turned things around when he decentralized authority for fighting crime and wrested control of high-crime areas away from criminals. Just as in New Haven, thanks to community engagement and aggressive enforcement, the right people went to jail and crime rates plunged.
Police say that the city’s current criminals are far less organized than their 1990s predecessors. This lack of central authority makes it much harder for the deterrence that comes with enforcement to stick. But there are ways — renowned criminologist David Kennedy has already visited and is trying to show New Haven how other cities have reduced violence using a combination of persuasion, incentives and force on criminals. That would be a real return to community policing, which New Haven does desperately need, but in its full, original form.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com.