Published in the New York Times, Friday, December 8, 2006
New Haven Rethinking Tactics on Crime
By JENNIFER MEDINA
NEW HAVEN, Dec. 7 — After a steady decline over a decade, the number of reported homicides has jumped almost 50 percent so far this year, causing alarmed city officials to search for new strategies on how to control violent crime.
The number — 22 killings in 2006, compared with 15 in both 2005 and 2004 — is significantly lower than in 1990, when there were 34 homicides here. Still, the spike, and an accompanying increase in nonfatal shootings among young people, have led to calls for a major increase in the number of police officers and a 10 p.m. curfew for people 18 and younger.
Now, this city, which was among the first in the nation to experiment aggressively with community policing, is returning to that approach after a period in which the New Haven Police Department instead relied on having officers in patrol cars crisscross the city to respond to reports.
“We have to constantly look at what’s happening and be able to say what’s working and what isn’t,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who last month proposed expanding the 405-member force by hiring 29 officers. That would make the department the largest in the state, though New Haven has the state’s second-largest population, after Bridgeport. “There began to be a question of whether we were getting away from something that had worked so well for us in the past, so it caused us to re-examine.”
Throughout most of the 1990s, crime in this city of 125,000 people dropped year after year — less drugs, fewer arrests for robbery and a gradual decline in violent crime — as the Police Department sent officers to roam small areas, walking beats with such regularity that residents knew their schedules. That strategy, along with youth programs and alternatives to prosecution, is known as community policing.
But in recent years, their dependable presence eroded as the department shrank. An increase in some crimes followed.
As Mr. DeStefano tries to expand the department, the city has also disbanded the roving patrol squad that it began in March, which flooded neighborhoods with police officers whenever there were bursts of crime. Now, the Police Department plans to return dozens of officers to bicycle and walking beats by the end of the month.
In a place that has taken great pride in bucking trends and trying new ideas, there is something of a push and pull between traditional law enforcement tactics and the community policing methods that became the norm here a decade ago.
Although many crime experts say it is impossible to link police tactics directly to murder rates, frustrated residents are pressuring city officials to do something.
“The core test of community policing is whether it empowers citizens,” said Douglas W. Rae, a professor at the Yale School of Management who has monitored the Police Department here for decades. “That’s all you can ask of it. I think that often happens, but one of the toughest parts is sustaining it.
“That’s not easy, because it is still the case that the twentysomethings who sign up for the police exams still might think of what they see on TV.”
In June, Jajuana Cole, 13, was shot and killed near her home on Dickerman Street, caught in the crossfire of what the police called a turf war between two neighborhoods known as Dixwell and Newhallville.
Two months later, the same turf war was also blamed for the killing of another 13-year-old, Justus Suggs.
Then last week, Robert Scott Bennett, 20, was shot to death in what the police said was a battle between two other neighborhoods.
But unlike the killings of a decade ago, the police say, these do not involve well-organized street gangs or drug feuds. Instead, they blame young people who simply spend idle time on the street and have easy access to guns. That has prompted some community leaders to call for a curfew to keep juveniles off city streets at night.
Similar problems are playing out in other cities around the region: Officials in Hackensack, N.J., are also considering a curfew ordinance, and in New York City, juvenile arrests for murder and other major felonies have increased 11 percent so far this year.
Curfews for teenagers gained some traction a decade ago, with somewhat mixed results. Some cities have attributed drops in crime to the curfews, but courts have also struck down some of them as unconstitutional.
So far, a proposed ordinance here is not attracting much support — both Mayor DeStefano and the police chief, Francisco Ortiz, have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the restrictions. Chief Ortiz said he was loath to support anything that could needlessly increase confrontations with police officers.
That concern was echoed — and shouted — by scores of students who attended a Board of Aldermen hearing to discuss the proposal at Hillhouse High School last week. The school is in a neighborhood where several shootings took place this year.
“It’s not going to do anything,” said Akeem Antrum, a senior at the high school. “Kids won’t abide by it — kids get in fights all the time.” Another student chimed in: “If I’m going to get into a fight, I’m going to hit her at 5 in the afternoon or I’ll hit her at 8 in the morning. It doesn’t matter what time it is.”
Several community leaders said in interviews that a reliable police presence was more pressing than the curfew proposal.
Throughout the summer, the Police Department received complaints from residents who were upset that officers were no longer regularly patrolling their neighborhoods. City officials acknowledge there are fewer officers on the streets, but in part blame the loss of federal funds for the erosion.
Throughout the 1990s, New Haven received millions of dollars in federal grants to increase the size of the Police Department. With the city divided into 10 neighborhood subdepartments, residents became accustomed to knowing exactly whom to talk to about trouble.
When the federal money was eliminated in 2000, though, the Police Department did not replace patrol officers who retired or were promoted. Instead it relied on overtime to ensure that enough officers were on duty at any given time.
And when crime began to rise this year, the police tried a different tactic: having the roving patrol squad saturate neighborhoods after a pattern of crimes and having officers do “sweeps,” which frequently resulted in arrests. That initiative was roundly criticized by longtime advocates of community policing, who viewed it as a reversal of years of progress.
But to carry out the mayor’s proposal for neighborhood policing, the city would have to recruit a class of 45 officers in the next month. That would give New Haven one officer for every 280 residents, compared with one every 305 residents now; Bridgeport has one per 336 residents, Hartford one per 303.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.