Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

According to New Haven Police Department Lieutenant Stephan Torquati, a typical scene at a busy New Haven intersection often involves distracted people. A driver dialing their friend’s phone number, forgetting to signal their turn. A biker with headphones in, oblivious to the car honking behind them. A pedestrian scrolling through Twitter, failing to see the walk light turn red.

These scenarios are far too common, Torquati said, and have become a massive problem both for the Elm City and the country as a whole.

Last Monday, the New Haven Board of Alders approved a $60,000 request from the New Haven Police Department to the Connecticut Department of Transportation to conduct a “targeted high visibility enforcement program for distracted driving.” The program was approved with unanimous consent from the board and will be implemented throughout the month of October, and then again during April of next year. Torquati, a supervisor of the program, said its main goal would be to station officers at “checkpoints” on New Haven’s busy streets and pull anyone over who is seen on their cell phone.

“Everybody does it,” Torquati said. “But the goal is to get people off their phones. Everyone should follow the traffic laws, and not everybody does. So there’s going to be a little bit of enforcement on all levels.”

In his letter to the Board of Alders, NHPD Chief Otoniel Reyes said that the $60,000 in funds would go towards police overtime and fringe costs. The money will also aim to reduce the number of “motor vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities.” The letter explains that the funds will also go towards education through “media venues” which will explain the safety risks of distracted driving. 

The program comes as an alternative to a previous city initiative which placed officers on state highways, Torquati said. He said this was due to an increase in concerns over the safety of New Haven streets, especially for pedestrians. Just last Tuesday, a Yale Law School student was struck and killed by a commercial truck.

According to the chief’s letter, the targeted locations include, but are not limited to: Foxon Boulevard, Whalley Avenue, Sargent Drive, Dixwell Avenue, Elm Street and Howard Avenue. He said these streets were chosen based on internal accident data within the department, which has not yet been made public.

“Of the factors which cause accidents, speed and distracted driving are the top,” Torquati said. “And so we picked these checkpoints based on the most common areas for accidents.”

According to Mark Abraham, executive director of local non-profit DataHaven — which manages a database of statistics on New Haven residents’ well-being, equity and quality of life — the list of streets that the NHPD program will monitor matches with DataHaven’s list of the roads with the most traffic volume in the city.

Abraham said these kinds of programs could be important in busier neighborhoods as they help to protect “vulnerable road users” —  bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians.

“Vulnerable road users are disproportionately from lower-income areas,” Abraham said. “Wealthier residents are more likely to drive.”

But Reyes’s letter to the Board of Alders referred to the targeted locations as “the most

troublesome locations in the City,” causing concern over what locations — and more specifically, which communities — this may impact.

Barbara Fair, a longtime community activist, explained that the word “troublesome” has historically been associated with communities that are overwhelmingly African American and Latino.

“‘Troublesome is a code word for poor and vulnerable communities of color,” Fair said. “I’m concerned about the alders’ continued investment in policing every issue while communities ask for reinvestment of policing dollars into resources to improve community life.”

Fair explained that the city of New Haven often develops programs designed to fine residents. She cited traffic stops, parking meters, tickets and booting cars as examples of the police investing its resources in activities that do not necessarily help its residents.

Ward 12 Alder Gerald Antunes, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, told the News there has been no discussion within this committee on larger concerns over police relationships with the community or police protocol while pulling people over. Police are only responding to traffic violations, he said, and thought there was no connection between this program and larger issues concerning police behavior.

“We don’t have those same problems [of police violence] in New Haven,” Antunes said. “We don’t hire bad police officers, we just hire some that aren’t as good as others. But that’s the nature of the beast.”

Ward 29 Alder Brian Windgate, who is the vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee, confirmed there was no discussion of police conduct with communities of color when analyzing this program.

Windgate emphasized that New Haven has strived to have a more community-based police force, and that still applies for this program.

“In New Haven, we haven’t had any George Floyds,” Windgate said. “We’re just trying to the best we can in the situation.”

Torquati acknowledged that as a supervisor of this program, police behavior when conducting stops is an issue worthy of scrutiny. However, he stressed that the urgency of addressing accidents and distracted driving, particularly in New Haven, could not be ignored.

“This is a concern nationwide,” Torquati said. “You have to explain to people why they are getting pulled over, regardless of the climate. We have to figure out a way to stop these accidents from occurring. We will act professionally, and I don’t see any problems with it.”

Hamden City Councilor Justin Farmer told the News that he thinks the high visibility enforcement program is beneficial in pulling over distracted drivers. He said that drivers using their phones behind the wheels and speeding was a danger to city residents.

Still, Farmer said that the $60,000 in funding that the state has allocated to the NHPD could be more effectively spent. He specifically pointed to investing more in education campaigns through social media and focusing efforts in the communities and schools that have high rates of distracted driving. 

“We need to educate people that distracted driving has real serious consequences,” Farmer said. “I like the program but I think there can be more education about [the issues of distracted driving].”

Farmer also added that the program is understandably controversial, saying that across the nation, traffic stops cause tension in communities. He said that one of the most common ways for people to break the law is when they are using their cars through actions such as idling.

Farmer also gave the example of Ahmaud Arbery being stopped by police while he was listening to music in the park. But he said while those situations do make him nervous, this program does not —  because he believed police will have “very little interaction” with people.

“In a lot of communities, there is a lot of tension around traffic stops,” Farmer said. “But as someone who is constantly criticizing the police, I think this is a great program.”

In July, the city of New Haven announced a $43,125,914 budget for the NHPD in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu