Amid ongoing discontent and recent protests about a shooting that involved officers from the Hamden and the Yale Police Departments last April, the race for Hamden’s top government seat is drawing to a close.
In the town of 61,000 people only five miles from Yale’s campus, incumbent Democrat Curt Leng faces strong opposition from Republican Jay Kaye in the Hamden mayoral race. Leng, who was first elected mayor in 2015, survived a primary challenge in September before beginning his campaign against Kaye, who ran unopposed in the primary. Lower on the ballot, candidates are vying for 15 seats on the town council, four on the board of education and one for the town clerk position.
In an interview with the News, Kaye said that running in the predominantly Democratic town is a challenge, as there are 16,000 registered Democrats and 4,000 Republicans. Yet Kaye believes that due to widespread disappointment among Democratic voters with the current mayoral administration’s policies, including rising property tax rates and large debt, next Tuesday’s election is likely to be close. Kaye — a former Democrat himself — said that as a fiscal conservative with a strong moral compass, he can “appeal to both parties” as he runs towards the middle.
“I knew running as a Republican would be difficult, historically and mathematically,” he said. “But I thought it would be in the best interest of the town.”
Leng told the News that he is running for mayor to continue the progress he has made in various areas, including infrastructural improvements, pension reform, fire safety, increasing support for unions and expanding community policing. He said he believes his experience separates him from Kaye, who would face an “enormous learning curve” if elected mayor as he has never served in government.
“I’m running for reelection to make sure we can continue the progress we’re making … I want to continue serving as mayor because it gives [me] the chance to help people every day,” Leng told the News.
The mayoral election has been significantly influenced by recent protests in Hamden and New Haven, which were held in response to last Monday’s release of a State’s Attorney report charging the involved Hamden officer. The report charged Devon Eaton for firing several rounds at unarmed Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon in April. Eaton is currently on unpaid administrative leave, but has not been fired –– his termination is a key demand of the protestors.
During a Wednesday press conference held outside Hamden City Hall, protestors cited the Hamden police employees’ collective bargaining agreement. This agreement states that once an officer is put under administrative leave without pay, the individual should have a hearing before the police commission within ten days. As of Thursday evening, eight working days have passed since Eaton was put on unpaid administrative leave.
Wednesday’s protesters also played a clip that was recorded in April, in which Leng explicitly says that he had seen enough evidence to recommend Eaton’s termination. The activists criticized Leng for not showing any signs of following up on his statement.
“On the day that the charges were filed, Mayor Leng said that [acting] Chief Cappiello was going to give it a 30 investigation internally within the police department,” said Hamden protest organizer Rhonda Caldwell, holding a copy of the contract on the steps of City Hall. “But that time frame seems to be outside of the contract.”
Kaye told the News that while he understands the protestors’ pain caused by the shooting, he could not commit to the notion of firing Eaton. He emphasized that he does not have enough information to make a decision, but that if elected mayor he would follow the recommendation of the police commission, which is the procedure that Leng is currently following.
In a debate with Kaye on Monday night held at Hamden’s Miller Library, Leng spoke about his plans to integrate more community input into police practices. He said that community feedback would be imperative in who the town selects as the next permanent police chief.
“I want someone with the vision to implement the community policing processes and practices that not only include what we’ve talked about, but have proven track records across the country,” Leng told the crowd.
However, protestors in New Haven and Hamden condemned the concept of community policing altogether. In a press conference that occurred on Monday night in Downtown New Haven’s Broadway island, activists urged attendees to replace the phrase “community policing” in their minds with the phrase “state-sanctioned violence.”
Ben Dormus ’21, research coordinator for Black Students for Disarmament at Yale — a group that was formed in the wake of the April officers-involved shooting — told the News that if Leng is focused on community policing, he should limit Hamden police officer’s jurisdiction to only their respective towns. Dormus said that the April shooting was caused by three different police departments — the YPD, HPD, and the New Haven Police Department — policing the Newhallville area where the April shooting occurred. Protestors called this a “triple occupation.”
Protesters will gather outside for another rally on Wednesday, which will take place at 5 p.m. outside of Leng’s home.
Municipal elections will be held across the state on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
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