As New Haven’s new police chief rolls out his agenda - four months into the job - a return to what’s called “community policing” is at the centerpiece. WNPR’s Neena Satija reports on how things are going so far.
INGLES: “you got the 98, right?”
FELICIANO: “I got the 98.”
Officers Juan Ingles and Martin Feliciano are walking their beat in the Fair Haven Neighborhood of New Haven. When the city’s new police chief announced he was assigning 20 officers to walking beats across the city, these two got the 3 to 11pm shift.
INGLES: “Cmon, you’re going to eat an McDonald’s?”
INGLES: “Aww, come on.”
PEDESTRIAN: “I ate at McDonald’s already.”
INGLES: Yeah? Buy me a burger.”
Walking the streets for an eight-hour shift isn’t the same as cruising around in a cop car. But Ingles and Feliciano say they’re enjoying the experience so far.
INGLES: “And it’s a start, OK? It’s a very good start. Somebody feels comfortable enough to say, ‘hey officer, can I talk to you?’ They grasp the feeling that this cop is here and he’s trying to help. He might not be able to do anything for us but at least he’s trying, and he’s trying to help us.”
About 20 years ago, walking beats were common in New Haven…..cops would get to know everyone in the neighborhood. But that approach fell by the wayside. And in the wake of increasing violence, walking beats became a key issue in last fall’s election. Brian Wingate chairs the Public Safety Committee for the city’s Board of Aldermen.
WINGATE: “Community policing is back simply because we knocked on doors and we heard it.…and we’re moving in the right direction.”
New Haven’s police department has been racked with controversy in the past two years. But many have high hopes for Chief Esserman, who was most recently police chief in Providence but served in New Haven in the 1990s. Esserman has promised a new era of transparency and community involvement.
ESSERMAN: “You know we’re not a king’s army. We get our authority and our permission from the community. So the community will be welcome in working with this police department to prioritize the problems in every neighborhood.”
But exactly how much input local residents will have still isn’t clear. Three assistant chiefs were asked to leave, so Chief Esserman could pick his own team. Among those let go was an officer named Petisia Adger, a 20-year veteran and the highest-ranking African-American on the force. Many were upset to hear the news, including longtime activist Barbara Fair.
FAIR: “If the community is saying we love Adger, we want her to be here, we want her a part of this new strategy for community policing, for you to totally ignore that –just makes me think twice about, so, maybe I don’t have the right definition of community policing.”
And maybe defining it is part of the problem, says alderman Brian Wingate. What does community policing really mean? Does it mean people should have a say in who Esserman picks as his next assistant chiefs? And does it mean that as he gets ready to hire a new class of officers, the department should do its best to recruit from within New Haven instead of from the suburbs?
WINGATE: “Yes. I believe so. This is Brian Wingate talking now. I believe there should be an opportunity for local people to get jobs here.”
Right now a majority of the New Haven police force doesn’t live in the city. But that’s not what will make or break community policing, said Esserman. It’s more important to make sure cops are walking the same beat in the same district for extended periods of time. That way people in the neighborhood will trust them, no matter where they’re from.
ESSERMAN: “I have seen officers who can connect to the community who don’t sleep in the community. And I’ve seen officers who live in the community and are completely disconnected.”
Esserman also says he’s embracing community policing in new weekly meetings called “CompStat meetings,” where district managers talk about what’s happening in their individual neighborhoods. Members of the public are invited are invited to attend. But privately, officers have crimes don’t get solved in CompStat meetings – they get solved when they’re out doing their jobs.
That’s where walking beats come in. Back on the street in Fair Haven, officer Feliciano says that walking the beat can give officers the exposure they need to spot crime more easily.
FELICIANO: “People don’t expect to see you on a walking beat, so you end up running into things that you normally don’t see in a cruiser. You could just walk up to a hand-on-hand transaction, people just selling drugs right there in the open. Once they see you in a car, it’s actually too late, because by the time you get out of the car and you go investigate, they’re actually running.”
Around 7 p.m., officers Ingles and Feliciano spot two men who appear to be arguing in an unlit driveway. They flash their lights on them and approach. At first, it seems a little confrontational – the officers take down the men’s names and addresses. But a few minutes in, they’re laughing.
Putting out fires like this is one of the centerpieces of community policing, the officers say. The men they approached may have been a little suspicious. But the next time they all see each other, they’ll probably wave. For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.