About 40 minutes into my ride-along, the officer beside me received an alert. There’d been a shooting in District 4. He hit the gas and soon we were racing, threading our way through the cars on Chapel and heading toward the scene of the crime.
Last month, I participated in the New Haven Police Department’s Citizen Ride-Along program, giving me the opportunity to spend an evening in an officer’s patrol car. The officer to whom I was assigned polices District 1, which includes the heart of Yale and downtown New Haven.
He knows my neighborhood far better than I do. He knows the one-way streets and the Atticus one dollar coffee deal. But he doesn’t know too many of District 1’s residents, despite the time he spends policing our streets. And I’d wager not too many of us know him.
Seen through the window of the patrol car, the streets seemed distant. We passed by familiar shops and corners — Alpha Delta, Jojo’s, those little boutique stores by Starbucks. But everything looked just a little bit off, like I was viewing my own neighborhood through a weird sort of filter. I felt removed from the shadows shifting up and down York, heading to class or to coffee or just to chill. It all got me thinking about the sorts of barriers we erect between streets and patrol cars, between our communities and our police.
Our country is at a critical juncture regarding our policing practices. With the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we’re finally having a much-needed dialogue about law enforcement and civil rights. It’s about time. And as New Haven residents, we are living in a city that offers unique opportunities for exploring and debating progressive policing.
What if Aug. 9, 2014 had not been the first time that Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson met? What if the two had recognized one another, at least by face? Would their encounter have been less hostile? These are the questions underlying community policing, an approach based on partnerships between officers and city residents. And it’s a strategy that has deep roots right here in New Haven.
Under the leadership of Chief Dean Esserman, the NHPD took a decisive step toward community oriented policing. This involved a number of new initiatives implemented in recent years. For one, the department now deploys officers to walking beats around the city’s 10 districts. This means the police are out strolling the streets and interacting with civilians — they’re not just viewing them from behind patrol car windows. Esserman has also introduced CompStat, a weekly meeting where department leaders, service workers and members of the public gather to evaluate trends in crime around the city. All of these new strategies aim to break down barriers between officers and civilians. Our city’s police department is far from perfect, but it has introduced some promising measures.
“We are trying to return to a way of policing where relationships and intimacy matter,” Esserman explained at a panel yesterday on “Mass Incarceration and Minority Mobilization,” which was hosted in Sudler Hall. He said he feels the significant cost incurred by the department’s walking beats is a sound investment. “We’re in the business of relationships.”
The success of this business lies not only in the initiatives of the police, but also in the participation of the broader community. Community policing isn’t just a policy you study in the classroom, or read about in a newspaper over your breakfast cereal. It demands action on the part of the public.
The avenues for public involvement in New Haven policing are actually quite accessible. Anyone can participate in the department’s citizen ride-along program. Thursday morning CompStat meetings are open to the public, offering an opportunity for ordinary citizens to air grievances and listen to updates on crime-fighting efforts across the city. The department even offers the Citizens Police Academy, which is an eight-to-10-week course designed to educate New Haven residents on the city’s police force.
The divisions between police officers and the public exist because we’ve erected them, whether or not we did so intentionally. Now, in New Haven, we’re being invited to dismantle those divisions. We’d be foolish to let that opportunity go to waste. If we do, our officers will continue cruising our neighborhoods to keep us safe — but we’ll remain separated by the tinted glass of patrol car windows.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College. She was an opinion editor on the Managing Board of 2015. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at email@example.com.