After New Haven received a million-dollar federal Byrne Grant last fall aimed at reducing crime in Newhallville, community leaders are pushing to improve ties between police and residents in the neighborhood and across the city as part of its ongoing community policing strategy.
During a time of tension between police forces and communities nationwide, city officials are still deliberating whether or not to accept the grant and will vote on Jan. 20 to make the official decision. At a board meeting last December, Newhallville residents raised concerns about the community policing model that the NHPD uses, and, at a public panel last week, residents also suggested that the NHPD engages in racial profiling.
Since New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman began his second stint as police chief in 2011, the NHPD has employed community policing, which aims to create relationships between police and residents. As part of community policing, officers walk their beats, instead of patrolling in cars. Former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. favored this approach, and brought Esserman from Providence, Rhode Island to help outline a community policing strategy for the NHPD. Since 2011, when there were 34 homicides, crime in New Haven has decreased significantly. In 2014, there were only 12 homicides in the city.
Community policing has largely been popular among New Haven residents, said Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. But he said that work still needs to be done, and that the NHPD needs to become more integrated with the communities it serves.
“You have a lot of cops that aren’t from New Haven,” he said. “They don’t see themselves as community-based; they see this as a job — punch in, punch out. What we want to see is stronger ties to the community all around.”
State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield said he partially agreed with Wingate. He said that the police district commanders are typically well-integrated with the community, but the officers below them still have work to do.
Not all of the money from the Byrne Grant will go to the NHPD. Instead, the city will allocate the money to various community agencies, in an attempt to create a collaborative, community-based method of crime reduction, Wingate said.
The Byrne Grant will likely be used to further community policing, said Jonathan Allen Kringen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and the chief evaluator for the Byrne Grant. One condition of the grant is that the city set aside $80,000 for evaluation and research of the project; Kringen will lead that evaluation effort. But, echoing Wingate’s remarks, he said that the police will not be the only focus of the grant.
Instead, Kringen said that the city will use the Byrne Grant to involve all relevant community organizations in an effort to make the police force an active part of the community. He added that community policing tends to improve perceptions of police in neighborhoods and makes residents more likely to cooperate with police investigations.
But not everyone is happy with that strategy. At the meeting in December, Latoya Agnew, a Newhallville resident, said that neither the police nor the community know how to interact with the other, and that the relationship between the two groups needs improvement. She believes that the money instead should be spent training police officers to improve community policing efforts.
Holder-Winfield expressed a similar sentiment.
“The problem has been that, when [police officers] walk through the community, they don’t always engage with the community.”
Some community members at the Alder meeting last December, including Roger Williams, Clifton Graves, Shirley Lawrence and Holder-Winfield, said that racial profiling remains an issue in New Haven.
Holder-Winfield said he does not believe racial profiling to be a common practice among the NHPD, but that it does occur in New Haven. Oftentimes, he said, police seem to profile suspects based only on race, and his constituents have suggested that racial profiling has been an issue, especially at the meeting.
With a city government and police chief largely supportive of the community policing strategy over the past four years, it seems the NHPD will likely continue with the strategy. Kringen, Wingate and Holder-Winfield all agreed that the model of community policing is likely the right way forward for the NHPD, and they hope to see its expansion and improvement in New Haven.
“We are most definitely in favor of community policing,” said Wingate, speaking on behalf of the Board of Alders’ Public Safety Committee.