While many Yalies were away from New Haven over the break, city officials called a press conference to celebrate the release of the city’s annual crime statistics. The numbers were stark: Homicides had dropped 60 percent in five years, and crime was down across the board. Five years removed from the bloody summer of 2011, where homicides spiked to a 20-year high, New Haven is safer than ever. Our city and our campus are safer, and there are many people who deserve to be recognized for it.
We should congratulate former New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, who was brought in to lead the police department in 2011 and left his post last fall. Though Esserman stepped down from his job under political pressure, it’s undeniable that he was the architect and enforcer of a new community policing regime which led to a 60 percent drop in homicides. Former Mayor John DeStefano deserves credit, too, for hiring Esserman to address the public safety crisis.
We should congratulate Mayor Toni Harp and her administration, which has not only supported the police department’s work, but focused their energy on reducing the economic and social hardships that contribute to crime. Under Mayor Harp, we have reduced the city’s unemployment rate through job training programs and support for small businesses, and created the YouthStat program to identify and support young people at risk of dropping out — a key predictor of future criminal activity.
We should congratulate Stacy Spell, a retired police detective who leads one of the most impactful public safety programs in New Haven — Project Longevity. The program works to identify people who are connected to gang-related gun violence, invites them to “call-ins” where they meet with police and are offered a choice — they can either receive support and resources from the program’s full-time social worker if they “go straight,” or face harsh penalties if they’re connected to any further violence. Unsurprisingly, many would-be violent criminals choose to accept the help, and gun violence has decreased as a result.
And we should congratulate the rank-and-file officers who have worked to implement community policing on their beats every day. They do more than just enforce the law — they get to know their assigned neighborhoods, and the various residents, community leaders, clergy and business owners who inhabit them.
Conservatives concerned about public safety call for aggressive tactics that often disproportionately target people of color and dance around the borders of the Constitution — stop-and-frisk techniques, for instance, or ramping up arrests for minor offenses in what’s called “broken-windows policing.” But over the past five years, New Haven has shown progress using a different approach, by recognizing that systemic injustice and economic deprivation lie at the root of crime, and directing resources to combat these foundational problems.
While policing in New Haven has improved, it’s certainly not perfect — there’s still far more to be done. The city no longer has a Civilian Review Board to review complaints of police misconduct after it was disbanded in 2014. The Joint Public Safety and Legislation Committee of the Board of Alders, which was tasked with drawing up a structure for a new Civilian Review Board, has not met a single time in 2016, according to the city’s legislative database. Police accountability is suffering as a result. In addition, city government and the police department must continue to curtail police overtime costs, which often run up to tens of thousands of dollars every week and put a strain on the city budget. But despite the room for improvement, it’s impossible to deny the progress the city has made.
It’s time for Yalies to reject the persistent campus myth that New Haven is shadowy and unsafe. It’s time to retire the cringeworthy slogan: “Don’t go past the Popeyes.” The assumption that the neighborhoods outside of Downtown and East Rock are ghettos has always been painfully inaccurate and racially tinged — and the new crime report proves just how wildly false it is. We live in a safe city, a vibrant city, a city that faces challenges but has made incredible strides thanks to the work of our mayor, our police and a passionate network of community leaders and volunteers, including many Yalies.
Abandon your stereotypes about crime in New Haven: It’s no longer acceptable to call it a ghetto or a slum. We’re a safer city now.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .