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A Silent Surge: The New NHPD Strategy That No One’s Talking About

In December 2014, Yale students, Yale faculty, and New Haven activists marched across the city to the beat of drums. Since Michael Brown was shot on a Ferguson, MO, street last August, groups such as the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the community coalition ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) have organized numerous protests, often attended by hundreds, against racial profiling and police brutality.

Just after November 24, when a Missouri grand jury refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson, a new phrase began to sound from the megaphones: The Surge. One protester, Karléh Wilson ‘16, conveyed the furious sentiment: “We demand that New Haven put an end to the Surge, right here, right now.”

The Surge is a New Haven Police Department (NHPD) operation begun last November. According to the New Haven Independent, it consists of semi-regular gatherings of policemen in particular areas to crack down on “loitering, vandalism, and suspicious streetcorner behavior.” The NHPD leverages crime statistics to single out the areas of the city most vulnerable to crime, then deploys groups of ten to fifteen officers to patrol those areas at various intervals, especially during peak arrest times. Typical Surge locations are around the bus stops at the New Haven Green and the corner of Chapel and Orange Streets.

The operation hopes to deter crime by making the presence of NHPD officers felt and promoting a sense of security among local law-abiding residents. However, the timing of its implementation is far from ideal. Recent months have been turbulent as the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner brewed a storm of public outrage. Widespread implementation of the Surge may only further corrode residents’ trust in law enforcement.

Latrice Dixon, a New Haven resident, voiced this distrust: “I think the police could be more sympathetic to the public. They have a position where they can do whatever they want, walk all over you.” She cited the death of Eric Garner as a source for her unease, despite the fact that the New York Police Department was not held responsible. Police departments are subject to fluctuations in national sentiment, forcing them cope with fallout of decisions made and actions taken in other jurisdictions.

Protesters found a quick way to turn public opinion against the Surge by associating it with the NYPD’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy, which allows police officers to stop and question pedestrians, then frisk them for weapons and other contraband. Opponents argue that policy is rife with racial profiling and easily degenerates into harassment: the New York Civil Liberties Union reports that between 2003 and 2014, 50% of those stopped were black and 30% were Latino. Those groups together only make up about half of New York City’s total population. A federal appeals court has since ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and in need of reform.

The Surge and Stop-and-Frisk are, however, very different policies. Whereas stop-and-frisk specifically mandates airport-security-like questioning and searching, the Surge functions as a beat walk: police only patrol, and they will not approach people unless there is cause for suspicion.

A strong police presence may encourage economic development by making business areas safer and more attractive to prospective shoppers. Dave, an employee at a Lower Chapel store, explained that the Green is a hotspot for illegal transactions because traffic and bus lines converge there from all across the city. To solve the problem, he suggested relocating police officers from relatively quiet neighborhoods to high crime areas.

“If you had a cop sitting here, there wouldn’t be nobody standing around, smoking and selling stuff,” said Dave. “They would have to move around, and eventually they’d get tired of moving around and they would leave altogether. Nobody’s stupid enough to sell in front of a cop.”

Conversely, Dan, an employee at an artisanal store on Upper Chapel, said that the Surge could actually hurt businesses because it may make an area appear more dangerous than it actually is. “As a shopper, I’d be deterred by [the Surge],” he said, and pointed out that a swarm of ten to fifteen police officers in an area is more ominous than a single beat cop strolling down the street.

Dave and Dan’s perspectives reflect the differences between Lower Chapel and Upper Chapel. Lower Chapel is the area around the Green; Upper Chapel is a few blocks away around Yale’s central campus and has a more upscale appearance. It is hard to generalize the Surge’s potential impact when New Haven contains such a wide spectrum of neighborhoods.

Neither Dave nor Dan knew about the Surge until The Politic explained it to them. This highlights a problem for the policy: hardly anyone seems to know about it. The Politic conducted in-person interviews with seventeen random New Haven residents, and not one knew about the Surge. The point of the Surge is to increase the visibility of the police; its anonymity may point to its failure to intimidate criminals and reassure residents.

Moreover, the NHPD has not been forthcoming with information about the Surge. The Politic reached out to Chief Dean Esserman on multiple occasions via phone and email, but he did not respond to inquiries. Policemen, when questioned, explained apologetically that they could not speak on the issue. When ThePolitic trekked to police headquarters, even the secretary of the Internal Affairs Department denied knowledge of the operation.

It is possible that the information is closely guarded to maintain the operation’s element of surprise, which is useful for deterring crime. But the lack of general knowledge, paired with public discontent with the NHPD, indicates that the Surge has notsucceeded in improving relations between the police and the community.

The Surge’s vague parameters make residents wary of racial profiling and police harassment. It is difficult to say what falls under “suspicious behavior” and how race shapes that determination. An employee at City Hall, whom we will call John, asserted that “cops target the homeless and minorities” under the Surge.

In fact, the most efficient—and least contentious—strategy for diminishing crime seems to have little to do with the police at all. Gene Dostie, owner of the jewelry store Derek Simpson Goldsmith on the upper portion of Chapel Street, told ThePolitic that New Haven has become safer over the past two decades mostly because of sleek new businesses and residential complexes injecting capital into the city. “I think [the new businesses] help everyone,” he said.

But as the money pours into the Elm City, it can create perverse incentives and lead to gentrification.  Karléh Wilson, whose petition to stop the Surge garnered over 170 signatures in the last two months, told The Politic that “[the Surge] is all an attempt to make the downtown New Haven-Yale area appear to be a utopia. Instead of dealing with the poverty and discrimination that persist in the area, the NHPD is being mobilized to simply push them away.” Dave asserted that community programs, especially after-school programs for children, would be a more beneficial long-run investment. “I went to the YMCA and learned how to play basketball,” he said. “If I weren’t doing that I’d probably be out in the street. If you got kids actively open and cooperative to after-school programs, you got somewhere to put their energy.” This would be a way of treating a cause, not symptom, of crime.

Still, we mandate the NHPD to address crime, not economic or educational reform.

Some residents suggested alternative strategies within the NHPD’s purview that simultaneously protect the community and improve the department’s standing within it. Dan said that the NHPD should focus its energy on regular beat-walkers who could forge strong connections with the community. As he put it, “Relationships work.”

Community policing is already a pillar of the NHPD’s tactics. Esserman explained in a November 2014 talk at Yale’s Dwight Hall that community policing involves assigning an officer to a limited geographic area within New Haven. That way, officers become familiar with business owners and employees, walk into community centers and other public spaces to meet residents, and, generally, make themselves highly visible and approachable. Esserman argued that the frequent patrols, in particular, reduce crime sharply.

Malik, a resident of Newhallville, echoed this sentiment. “You can’t put someone in a box,” he said, warning cops against using stereotypes to judge other people’s potential criminality. “Assuming is never a good thing.” He said that he would support the Surge if the police always made an effort to understand people on a human level.

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