15 months ago, New Haven–based freelance writer and documentary filmmaker Steve Hamm set out to tell the story of policing in New Haven — a story of a transition from a police force reminiscent of the military to one that tries to build a strong relationship with its community.

Hamm’s sixty-minute film, titled “Shift Change: The Future of Community Policing in New Haven,” will first premier this summer. In an interview with the News, Hamm said the film aims to start a conversation about community policing — a strategy that aims to foster relationships between law enforcement officers and residents — in the Elm City. For the film, he interviewed members of the New Haven Police Department, city leaders, academics and community activists in order to explain what community policing is, provide firsthand accounts of what it looks like in practice and evaluate its future as a viable method of law enforcement.

“I knew that a lot of people who think they know what community policing is or have a strong opinion about policing in New Haven … [but] I felt that perhaps that wasn’t actually true,” Hamm said.

Hamm centered his documentary around a case study on community policing in Fair Haven. He accompanied officers as they patrolled New Haven’s most populous neighborhood and observed their interactions with residents. Hamm chose Fair Haven because it has the highest proportion of Hispanic residents. As a result, the Fair Haven population has a heightened difficulty with the police due to language barriers and fears about immigration enforcement.

Hamm said that the state of community policing in New Haven and beyond has improved dramatically in the past decades. In the 1960s, he said, law enforcement in America became “militaristic, occupational and very adversarial.” In the city, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of officers — known among residents as the “beat down posse” — became notorious for randomly assaulting neighborhood youths.

Community policing emerged as an alternative strategy in the early 1990s throughout the U.S. Led by then-Chief Administrative Officer Douglas Rae, then-Alder and current Mayor Toni Harp and then-NHPD Police Chief Nicholas Pastore, New Haven was among the first cities to adopt the practice. Community policing, according to Hamm, has “waxed and waned” over the years — but returned in full force in 2011 when the city experienced an upsurge in crime and gang-related violence. That year, New Haven saw a decade-high homicide rate of 34 homicides and was named the “fourth most dangerous” city in the United States by Business Insider.

Central to the method’s 2011 development was Project Longevity, an initiative which aims to reduce gang-related gun violence in three of Connecticut’s major cities — New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. The New Haven branch of Project Longevity, headed by retired NHPD Detective Stacy Spell, identifies gang members and encourages them to pursue positive lifestyles, such as by connecting residents with social services. Crime rates in the city have for the most part fallen every year since 2011.

“You’ll see a significant drop in our crime — not just violent crime but quality of life crimes including robberies and burglary are down,” former NHPD Chief Anthony Campbell DIV ’95 announced at a press conference in January. “When you walk around this city, you can feel the change.”

Today, community policing in the Elm City involves the NHPD’s partnership with Project Longevity as well as internal department practices. Police officers are equipped with cell phones so that individual residents can contact them directly and, as of 2017, wear body cameras while on duty. All new officers now spend a significant portion of their first two years completing walking beats to interact and build relationships with people in their patrol areas, according to Hamm.

Throughout the filmmaking process, Hamm said, he encountered people with “very harsh attitudes” about community policing on all sides and attempted to include all perspectives on the history and current climate of law enforcement in the Elm City. He hopes that his documentary will serve as an “invitation to have a deeper discussion” about community policing — not just locally, but also elsewhere in the state.

“Shift Change” will premiere at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival on June 4 at 6:30 p.m.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

Mackenzie is the editor in chief and president of the Managing Board of 2022. She previously covered City Hall for the News, including the 2019 mayoral race and New Haven's early pandemic response. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a junior in Trumbull College studying ethics, politics and economics.