Adrian Kulesza

As the nation struggled with the effects of a long-lasting pandemic, cities across the U.S. saw upticks in violent crime this year. New Haven is no different.

Since January, the city has had 71 non-fatal shootings incidents — up from 51 at this time last year, according to CompStat data collected by the New Haven Police Department. This week, New Haven saw its 16th homicide: a West Haven man who was shot on Hazel Street. According to CompStat, there were only 12 homicides in all of 2019. Amid the spike in violence, city and public safety officials have urged the New Haven community to come together and to support law enforcement efforts. 

“Like many cities around the nation, we’ve been experiencing an uptick in violence,” Mayor Justin Elicker told the News. “I’ve already been to too many vigils and funerals and emergency rooms, and that is very concerning. Our team is working very hard to respond to this challenge with our partners.” 

Elicker attributed the surge in crime to severe economic hardship sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, illegal guns on the streets and those released from prison due to pandemic health concerns. The mayor said that law enforcement was working closely with probation and parole officers, whose offices were temporarily shuttered in the summer, to keep track of formerly incarcerated individuals and offer support if needed.

Longtime local activist Barbara Fair told the News that she questioned the attribution of crime to formerly incarcerated individuals and said that many arrests had not even been made yet in the recent wave of shootings. 

In 2011, New Haven was listed as the “fourth most dangerous” city in America, according to FBI data. Though CompStat indicates the number of homicides and shootings so far in 2020 have not surpassed that of 2011, the city saw 24 homicides and 86 shootings between January and August — numbers higher than they have been in any year since. In a July press conference, New Haven police chief Otoniel Reyes said the department was working with federal, state and local partners to step up patrol efforts — a strategy Reyes said had helped lift the city out of its 2011 crime level then. 

“The message I want to send to our community is that we must come together during this time,” Reyes said. “Your [police] department is working as hard as they can. We are here, we are your department and we are prepared to work with you to make sure that our city streets are safe.” 

Both Reyes and Elicker cited the city’s financial stresses as one reason for stretched police resources. In 2016, the expiration of an existing police union contract led to an exodus of officers from the NHPD into the departments of neighboring towns — forces that could afford better benefits and higher starting salaries. This year, the police budget has undergone significant review and change. Elicker said he cut 48 vacant officer positions from the force, and the city announced in July that it would slash a total of $4 million from the police budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. In a statement at the time, Elicker said he did not want to cut the NHPD budget, but he was doing so out of financial necessity. 

On Thursday, Elicker also said that a rise in other activities — such as drag racing and large gatherings — had been diverting police resources away from fighting violence on the streets. 

Community activist Fair told the News that the rise in crime numbers does not indicate a need for more police officers but shows a need for more effective types of policing. Fair emphasized that, from her perspective, defunding the police would bring much-needed resources into the community to change the socioeconomic conditions that might lead someone into crime — instead of continually pouring money into the NHPD. 

The city has recently seen heated protests as local activists and residents have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against Black Americans throughout the nation and in New Haven. In a June protest after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, video footage posted online by the Connecticut Bail Fund shows hundreds of protestors organizing outside NHPD headquarters. The protests have continued throughout the summer — among the key demands of activists is the defunding of the NHPD, divesting from policing more broadly and investing in social services. 

In a July press conference held in response to four shootings in a single day, Elicker mentioned “general nationwide stress” on the relationship between the community and police officers but he told the News on Thursday that he did not believe it was a driver for increased violence. 

But in a July press conference, NHPD assistant chief Karl Jacobson said that increased hostility from the New Haven community made it more difficult for police to combat crime.

“We’re here to ask the community for help and support,” Jacobson said. “Officers have been responding to shooting scenes and attempting to save lives, and being met with disdain, hatred and people cursing at them. We need you to support your police.” 

 Jacobson and Reyes said that police departments have been receiving fewer calls on their tiplines and saw fewer people cooperating with police investigations. 

However, Black Lives Matter New Haven co-founder Ala Ochumare told the News that she believed the recent uptick in violence has nothing to do with protestors or community hostility towards police. 

“It’s the police who have decided to stop standing up and supporting communities,” Ochumare said. “There’s a narrative in the department that they’re not going to respond to certain areas in a timely fashion, or with the sense of urgency that they would before…we started holding them accountable. What I see is not increased tension from the community towards the police, but an increase in tension from the police to the community.” 

Ochumare said that many people in New Haven had been left economically and emotionally devastated by the effects of the pandemic, which has led some individuals to turn to crime. She emphasized the lack of social support for people in a state of “mourning” — those who have lost people, money and jobs — and cited the need to fund transformational justice housing as a space for rehabilitation.

Elicker told the News that while the city had taken immediate measures to curb the violence, he also believed the city needed to invest more heavily in its public education system, social services and provision of resources to individuals coming out of prison. 

The New Haven Police Department Headquarters  is located at 1 Union Ave.

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu