Sammy Westfall

After months of protests in New Haven and across the country, the New Haven Police Department will begin advanced training next week for a new crowd-control program designed to coordinate police responses to protests.

Next week, five police officials will visit an undisclosed private company that will provide an initial round of training, according to police spokesman David Hartman. The officials will then return to the Elm City and train other officers in the New Haven Police Academy. The training comes in the wake of a surge of protests following the 2016 presidential election. Over the last year, New Haven has seen more protests than in the previous 23 years combined, Hartman said.

“This is a utilization of best, most safe practices — for our residents and for our officers,” said Rick Fontana, New Haven’s emergency operations deputy director. “We are involved with community policing, and this is an expansion of that.”

Typically, New Haven does not have problems with large-scale civil unrest, as the police department can typically work out disputes with residents, Fontana added.

Hartman said that only the policy-creation portion of the program has been completed so far. He said he has not gone through the program, but that he believes it will involve techniques for communication between authorities and “those defying authority.”

“There is a huge amount of research, there are lawyers behind the policy decisions,” Hartman said. “There are repercussions for police officers across the world in how they handle these matters. Know there are no greater eyes than eyes on a police department when there is something like this going on.”

Additionally, Hartman said, the new training will be beneficial because of the recent protests in the city.

“Why are we doing it now? Because we’ve had some incidents,” Assistant Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said. “Things are happening around the country. We don’t want to be reactionary. We want to be proactive.”

Reyes did not specify what equipment the teams will be given, but said it would be the “minimum amount” to ensure officer safety. Hartman said the department will get new gas mask vents this year.

Reyes added that the training will help the department become more self-sufficient and handle conflicts without calling in state officers.

“We are trying to be a better department for our city, so that we can contain things before they get out of hand,” he said. “And when things do get out of hand, we can apply the appropriate level of response. We don’t have to call the national guard; We don’t have to call state police. New Haven can take control of New Haven.”

Hartman highlighted the importance of ensuring that every officer is on the same page to unify the response to protests.

“If you take two different protests and two different groups of a dozen officers, and had them focus on the exact same scenario, same people, on two different days, you would likely get two different methods to deal with it,” he said.

The new crowd-control program has received a mixed response from the community.

In an interview with the News, Barbara Fair, a New Haven activist and former social worker, expressed concern about the new training program. Fair said she is organizing community forums in hopes of allowing residents to voice concerns to the chief.

Fair said she hopes the department will “decide to focus on building trust in the department and restoring the honor to police work instead of adding another layer of control over the people’s voice.”

Pastor John Lewis, a community activist and Director of Outreach for the CT Center for Nonviolence, also noted that recently there has been some tension between the police and the people.

While he noted that some protest events turn “sideways,” Lewis said he believes the department is trying to do the right thing.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu