A new initiative to foster communication between New Haven police officers and the communities they serve could be as simple as a tool in their back pockets: cell phones.

At the end of September, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp announced a plan to issue city cell phones to officers in each district so that residents can directly contact specific officers, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said. He noted that although the idea has been considered for years, the program is still in its infancy, with funding sources and specific policies yet to be determined.

“[The initiative] has been part of the landscape for as long as the mayor has been in office, which is two and a half years,” he said. “Whether a specific proposal was made right away, I can’t say, but it has been part of the mayor’s desire to expand community policing and to make neighborhood beat officers more accessible to residents and business owners; so, while the issue of cell phones is still not universal, it has been a goal for some time.”

A tight municipal budget is the proposal’s main obstacle, Grotheer said.

Grotheer said giving citizens direct contact with officers would make it possible to have an officer on the scene much faster. He added that residents should not expect officers to give out personal cell numbers, so a city-issued cell phone number would allow for more direct contact without compromising the privacy of officers.

Lieutenant Joseph Murgo, a public information officer at the East Haven Police Department, expressed the same concern about privacy. When officers use their personal phones while working, they could be subject to court subpoenas, he said.

There is precedent for a program similar to the cell phone initiative. Former New Haven police officer James Naccarato, now deputy chief of police at the East Haven Police Department, said New Haven officers in the 1990s had city-issued pagers for residents to contact them directly. Naccarato added that the program led to quick responses to routine calls, as citizens were able to bypass dispatch services.

The program was “by no means intended to replace 911,” Naccarato said, but residents were more likely to call officers with neighborhood concerns, helping the police communicate more effectively with community members. Although the pager program ended after New Haven police chief Nick Pastore retired in 1997, Naccarato said it was useful at the time.

Nearby, East Haven is now implementing a program similar to that proposed by Harp. East Haven currently gives city-issued cell phones to commanding and supervising officers but plans to expand the practice to include more officers, Naccarato said.

Grotheer said Harp’s proposal reflects her commitment to community-based policing because it allows residents to more easily contact police officers.

“[The initiative] includes police officers on walking beats getting to know community members and earning the trust and the confidence of community members so that the New Haven Police Department can become a part of each neighborhood and a larger community,” Grotheer said.

The NHPD serves 10 districts.