A Look At What Awaits New Haven's New Police Chief

May 16, 2017

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has selected interim police Chief Anthony Campbell to take over permanently starting June 1. Campbell took over on an interim basis back in September after former Chief Dean Esserman stepped down. Esserman is credited with bringing crime down in the Elm City, but a number of erratic public incidents prompted Harp to ask for his resignation.

WNPR spoke with New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass about the announcement. Bass said Campbell stepped in at a time when confidence in the police and Esserman was at a low point.

Paul Bass: Esserman couldn't stop cops from taking cameras or phones out of citizens' hands, and throwing them on the ground, and trumping up arrests, and berating an usher at a ballpark for not letting him in free. Then you can't really have the community trust you need to undertake community policing. So he did leave under the request of the mayor back in September.

WNPR's Ray Hardman: So tell us about Anthony Campbell.

Anthony Campbell is an interesting guy. He grew up poor in New York, and his father was a drug dealer, and his mother was a corrections officer who met the father at Rikers Island while she was monitoring him. Campbell got into Yale, and then Yale Divinity School, and became a minister.

He got recruited as part of community policing in New Haven, when they wanted to get a different kind of cop, and this was 19 years ago. He's worked his way up in the department ever since.

Is it fair to say he is going to stay on board with New Haven's community policing efforts?

I think he's on board with the city's program, but I think community policing is on life support in New Haven. I think there's been inability to hold cops accountable for some pretty horrible incidents involving disrespect to the public -- in violation of people's rights. I don't know that people really believe that there can be community policing. I think that there is some good policing, but I think community policing has become a buzz word without a lot of substance behind it.

Will Chief Campbell have to restore some trust between the New Haven Police Department and the neighborhoods?

I think he will need to restore both inside and outside the department. As interim chief, he has done a good job healing wounds that have festered in the last few years, as the top of the department was a mess under Esserman. Things fell apart. Groups were going after each other.

I think Campbell proved himself in this interim period as an honest broker. He could deal with the union. He could deal with the different racial groups within that department, and cliques, and that was very important to the mayor. That was an important reason why she chose him.

I think you've got a bigger challenge in the community. He is not a lightning rod. He's not someone who will disrespect the community; he deals well with the community. But he's got to show he can hold his own cops accountable. And that has not happened -- including the last nine months.

He also wants to hire more officers?

Yes, we've got a recruitment drive going on. Another bad thing that happened over the years is that we had a hard time hiring local cops, so they got a lot of suburban white cops who are good people, but don't understand the city the same way, and don't necessarily always carry out what used to be called community policing, and have not been at all held accountable for that.

So the wrong message has gone out about how you try to make arrests. For instance, the last resort, rather than the first resort. And I think that's one of the challenges with this upcoming recruiting drive -- can Campbell find more Anthony Campbells to become police officers in New Haven?

Campbell also wants to make sure every officer is equipped with a body camera. Will that help restore the relationship between the police and the community?

He argues that. New Haven, like a lot of cities in the country, are moving to body cameras. In fact, we're kind of late to the game in Connecticut -- Branford and Hamden have them. What's interesting about body cameras is in the end, they end up vindicating cops because you're seeing from the perspective of the officer -- not the person in the crowd.

So it will never be a substitute for protecting the rights of citizens to video record the police themselves. And New Haven has a horrible record on that. Even after making promises in the consent decree, even after these lawsuits, even when top cops have to leave because of it, they still can't seem to instruct officers to respect people's rights to record them.

And body cams do something different. Often when people complain against the cops, they're often making it up, and body cams have shown in other cities that when people think they've been treated badly, they watch the video recording, and see that in fact, they were the ones who were acting out. So, I think the body cams will increase trust by providing more accountability on both sides of the police-community divide.

Campbell is an African American; he has two degrees from Yale University, and he's an ordained minister. Do you think he's the right choice for this job?

I think it was the right choice. I think Campbell is a very honest broker. He's dedicated to the community. He understands the need to have the trust of the community. He's very intelligent. He's got some challenges that nobody's perfect, but I think he's going to have to work hard to get tougher on letting his cops know that they can't abuse the rights of the press and the public.