Razel Suansing, Contributing Photographer

In response to the high number of violent crimes that have occurred in New Haven over the past year, the Board of Alders Public Safety Committee met with law enforcement agencies on Thursday evening.

In a workshop conducted over Zoom, the New Haven Police Department, Yale Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office, among others, each presented to the committee a respective plan to curb the crime uptick. The number of shootings, murders and shots fired, local law enforcement officials said, are up from recent years. 

At the meeting, New Haven Assistant Police Chief Renee Dominguez said several factors are believed to have contributed to the recent violence, many of which are results of the pandemic. These include reduced patrols, school shutdowns and the inability to conduct in-person projects that have led to the decrease in such crimes in previous years.

Despite the surge in violent crimes last year, the officers are hopeful that the implementation of programs that “have worked in the past” — such as Project Longevity, Project MORE and increased face-to-face interaction with community members — could reduce the number of future violent crimes, Dominguez said. Stacey Spell of Project Longevity stressed that violence is a community issue, and thus everyone from the community needs to get involved.

“We know that when we speak with dignity — when we bring in the entire community, we have a way and a mechanism and a means to slow the violence down,” Spell said.

Dominguez and Jacobson said that some crime prevention programs remain difficult to implement amid a pandemic. Project Longevity, a New Haven program intended to reduce the city’s gun violence through programs like mental health treatment, education and employment, was recently adapted to comply with public health guidelines. Dominguez told the committee that the lack of face-to-face interactions between officers and residents on parole or probation has left a void in the department’s outreach. Officers usually reach out or keep track to these individuals who are more likely to commit gun-related offenses or become victims of such offenses.

Dominguez added that she believes a reduction in the number of patrol cars has also contributed to the increased violence. Due to the pandemic, NHPD has reduced the number of cars with two officers, thus reducing the number of preventive patrols the department could conduct. Preventive patrols are the routine movement of uniformed officers in specific geographic areas. 

The NHPD has now adapted its patrol methods to public health measures by emphasizing motor vehicle enforcement, according to Dominguez.

Apart from department patrolling efforts, Spell and others said community outreach was necessary to help combat violence. Ward 30 Alder Honda Smith of West Hills told those in attendance she recalled the days when police officers were constantly walking down the street.

“The community wants to be involved, but when they try to get involved, they get pushed back,” she said. “So how are we going to be more friendly to the community? You’d be surprised by how much intel you could get from someone if you just talk to them.”

Representatives from the NHPD noted that they would love more youth to be engaged in the department. Smith stressed youth outreach as a necessity, especially given the department’s lack of officers from New Haven.

“We definitely need more New Haven people to be working in New Haven,” she said. “In the last class that came out [in 2020], only four New Haven residents out of 18 were hired to be a police officer. To me, that’s sad. We have to do better as a city, and we have to do better as a department.”

The numbers in the first 2021 class of graduates are relatively similar. Of the 16 new officers the NHPD welcomed in January, only four of them are actually from New Haven — others come from West Haven, North Haven and other surrounding Connecticut towns.

Pastor and New Haven resident Boise Kimber also noted an apparent divide between officers in the community. According to him, part of it is owed to the fact that many officers do not “know” the areas they are serving.

“Do we just want to put everybody in jail, or do we want to have relationships?” Kimber said. “One of the biggest issues that we’re facing is that the new officers do not know the community. You cannot have 15 white officers in Dixwell-Newhallville who have never lived in Dixwell-Newhallville, who drive in and drive out. How do we bridge that gap?”

In 2019, New Haven saw its first increase in gun violence for the first time in eight years. From 2012 to 2018, New Haven saw an average of 63 non-fatal gun assaults per year, a drop from an average of 134 from 2003 to 2011. In 2019, the number was 78. In 2020, it was 121.

This is important because non-fatal gun assaults often lead to more violence through acts of retribution according to Jacobson.

Steven Woznyk, the assistant police chief of the Yale Police Department, said that though the city is currently facing “tough times,” he is hopeful that Elm City can “get back on its stride” and see decreasing crime rates again.

New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, however, said that he is concerned that the trends seen in 2020 are “likely to continue” in 2021. 

“There are many factors that have gone into the rise of violence— some of which is COVID but not only COVID — and I do think that proactive, strategic approach to individuals, which is going after individuals before they pull the trigger, before they have the opportunity to shoot somebody is for me the key to driving down the statistics,” Griffin said.

The question of how to reduce violence has remained an issue of much debate in the Elm City for several decades. While police departments have often pressed for increased patrolling and police-resident relations programs, others have called for a reduction in policing. Some have argued that unreformed policing practices are a contributing factor to, rather than a solution for, the rates of violence.

“People are out and about and so with loss of employment people may be desperate and depressed about existing conditions. I would think more robberies and petty arguments are occurring,” long-time community activist Barbara Fair wrote to the News in November. “If crime is allowed to happen the public immediately believes we need more police when in fact what we need is less reliance on police and with those millions spent on overtime reporting on crime the community would have millions (spent on overtime alone) to invest in the community significantly reducing crime. Nothing reduces crime like a job opportunity.”

In 2020, there were 20 homicides and 121 non-fatal shooting victims in New Haven.

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu