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A Tenuous Trust: Police-Community Relations in New Haven

“Community policing at this stage is a farce.”

The words of local activist Barbara Fair capture the sharp disconnect between what the New Haven government promotes about its policing practices and the views of many city residents. It was not supposed to be this way. Five years ago, there was real hope in the Elm City.

A brisk wind swept through New Haven during the autumn of 2011. Pledging results and a return to real community policing, Dean Esserman returned to the Elm City. The streets stared him down. New Haven was on track to set a new high for murders that year. The city had gone through three previous chiefs in the past three and a half years. Everywhere one looked, New Haven seemed to be swirling ever further into chaos. But Esserman would not blink.

A graduate of Dartmouth College (B.A.) and New York University School of Law (J.D.), he served as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York City among other occupations, before becoming known for implementing community policing in New York City. Starting in 2002, he served as Chief of Police of the City of Providence, Rhode Island, for eight-and-a-half years. By the time Dean Esserman returned to New Haven, he had many years of experience under his belt. If anyone could help the city, it was him.

But protests over policing in New Haven did not stop. In some ways, they may have worsened. And tension still permeates the city. What went wrong? Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dramatic rise and fall of former New Haven Police Department (NHPD) Chief Dean Esserman. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp announced Esserman’s resignation on September 6th, 2016, effective Sept. 2nd, 2016.

At first, the results seemed stunning. The homicide, aggravated assault and robberies count had all dropped markedly over the past five years. The crime reductions were thought to be the result of better connections between law enforcement and the community. FBI Director James Comey praised New Haven’s policing programs,and Dean Esserman, then with a national profile, was even invited to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama and leaders in policing.

But behind the seemingly stellar record, problems were brewing in the Elm City. Though there was heavy praise from the outside world, for those who actually walk the city streets, anger at the way things are has been building for decades.

In 2011 as police chief in Providence, Rhode Island, Esserman was reprimanded for reportedly threatening to throw coffee in the face of a sergeant who coughing while Esserman was giving a speech. He also faced issues involving minors consuming alcohol at a graduation party for his daughter that same year. In both Providence then and in New Haven this year, police unions passed a vote of no confidence in Esserman. As police chief of New Haven, Esserman threatened to cancel a Yale-Army football game because an elderly usher did not let Esserman into a football game; Esserman was reprimanded in July of 2016 because he allegedly verbally attacked a waitress at Archie Moore’s on Willow Street.

Barbara Fair, a longtime local activist, member of and founder of activist group My Brother’s Keeper, spoke to the politic. When asked if Esserman’s tenure was good for New Haven, she said that he simply was not ready for the challenges facing the Elm City.

“There have been some good things about him, but overall I think he was bad for New Haven, and I think it was pretty much like a lot of the chiefs that they brought into New Haven is that some of them, you know they might have done well somewhere else, but because there was a chief that did well somewhere else, does not mean that what they did there is going to fit in New Haven .”

From her perspective, Esserman, originally hired to improve community policing in New Haven, has since become just another symbol of a broken system where those in power face little if any accountability. When asked about the decline in crime in New Haven these past few years under former chief Esserman, she shrugged.

“Crime has gone down across the nation in the last five years. So it has nothing to do with Esserman in fact. It has a lot to do with the trend that has been going on for quite a while now, but especially in the last five years. And some of the things that did make a difference in New Haven is that we started paying attention to our young people.”

But perhaps most devastating was her matter-of-fact reply when asked about the state of New Haven’s much-heralded community policing:

“Community policing at this stage is a farce…We at one time did have community policing. It was under Chief Pastore. And in those days you might see the chief stand on the corner talking to young people, buying somebody pizza, somebody might need bus fee, he’ll give them bus fee. He was truly engaged in the community.”

Former chief Esserman did promise a return to officers walking the beat. But the question remains aboutR what that entails. According to Fair, the public vision of New Haven policing espoused by Esserman contrasts sharply with reality. One could call it a tale of two cities, and, great expectations, in this case, may not have been met.

“Walking the beat and community policing are two diff. things. Anybody can walk the beat, and what we see a lot of [is] officers walking the beat, talking to each other, on their phones, texting, standing on corners, and police cars sitting in lots.  That’s not community policing. Community policing is actually being in the community, engaging the community. One good way you can tell if community policing is working, you ask some of the officers ‘Well, how many people have you met and talked to? Who do you know in the district where you’re policing?’ And if they can’t tell you that means community policing is failing. ”

This stands in stark contrast to the common narrative about how New Haven is role model for community policing. Fair has firsthand experience with how policing can work, or fail to work, in New Haven. Her daughter, Holly Tucker, was pulled out of her vehicle by police officers several  weeks ago, and was reportedly injured during the incident. She spoke more about why there may be disconnect between the community and the police.

“Many of these people have no idea who anybody is in the community that they’re supposed to be policing…The greater majority of officers do not work in New Haven. That’s one of the things we’re working on now on the task force that I’m on, the police task force. ”

Next, Fair explored some of the specifics behind why the NHPD is not as representative as it could be. “We’re looking at the inherent bias that’s within the recruitment process because what we’ve seen over the years is a lot of people from the community try to get on the police force but on different entry levels like the psychological, the background, field training, they would get kicked out on one of those levels.

Her goal is “to find out where the biases in the system [are] and try to eliminate it.”

Another member of the New Haven activist community, Jane Mills, a member of People Against Injustice (PAI), also spoke to The Politic. When asked to explicate her opinions on former police chief Dean Esserman’s tenure, she began speaking about the lack of transparency in the past with the NHPD.

“I have to tell you this. How would we know? How would we know if he’s been good for New Haven? ”

Continuing on, Mills talked about past restrictions for activists attending Compstat, the weekly meeting which is part of the New Haven community policing program. Compstat is supposed to share data with everyday citizens, but Mills declaimed on its failure of implementation. “We’re not allowed in CompStat meetings…We have a kind of community policing that gets rid of the activists. So community policing which is purportedly supposed to bring the community together and keep an open ear to dissent and welcome dissent and criticism and praise and all kinds of things instead has pushed out, it’s created divisions in the community.”

To her, the structure of community-police interactions seemed stacked against activists; transparency had to be fought for.

“Insiders and outsiders, stakeholders and those who’ve been shunned an rejected. Ejected from the inside circles so that even public meetings held once a week at the police station hosted by Chief Dean Esserman, though they were called public, were not actually public because certain members of the public were explicitly excluded from those meetings, for example Barbara Fair.”

Mills raises issues of trust, or the lack thereof, between New Haven’s activists and the NHPD. She has initiated multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn more about New Haven’s crime statistics, such as on misdemeanors and arrests. To her, it is important for Elm City residents to understand the state of policing if they are to effectively influence City Hall.

“One of the reasons I do the Freedom of Information Act requests and I’m going to do even more of them is because it’s very difficult for the community to help direct policy and decision making in this city, which is their right, without access to the information. Public information. We’re not talking about secret stuff…We’re talking about public documents, public meetings that we’re barred from. And that’s got to end. It’s got to end.”

Asides from the secrecy surrounding police documents in New Haven, another issue Mills brought up was the lack of accountability in the police department whenever there are alleged abuses of power; Esserman’s return to New Haven felt like a distraction from other pressing issues.

“He was hired after a corruption scandal in the NHPD. The FBI arrested three officers. One of them was high ranking officer who had been the object of protests off and on since the 1970s…Even though the number one priority after that was finding ways to ensure and guarantee accountability for misconduct, brutality, dishonest, criminal activity by police, the city, after having a turnaround chief for about a year, the city decided that the number one problem was now community relations.”

Somewhat exasperated, Mills continued: “Somehow they arrived on Dean Esserman after a couple false starts. And the community policing narrative just wouldn’t stop.” Reflecting on the city’s progress, she sighed. “Eleven years later now, they’ve made zero progress on their number one priority, which was how to run a clean department, and how to guarantee a clean department. Period.”

The feeling among Elm City residents that the police have impunity is supported anecdotally, especially when there is the possibility of racial profiling, and perhaps factually. Mills has combed through reams of crime statistics, and she is disappointed.

“There’s zero oversight…In the case of misdemeanors, which are the largest group of arrests, over a thousand, almost two thousand a year, there’s zero investigation of those, maybe one, two, three percent of those are even investigated.”

The organization in charge of investigating NHPD misconduct, Internal Affairs, is run in-house by officers. When asked about previous civilian review boards, she said one of her inside sources from the police has never seen a civilian review who’s ever made a dent in departmental integrity. To Mills, the challenge ahead is clear: “This city has to decide how it wants to be policed.” She argued that the city, including Mayor Harp, put too great a burden onto just the idea of community policing, and that a unified front – the right mayor, the right chief, the right appointees to the Board of Police Commissioners – is needed to enact real change.

If someone can help bridge the gap between the NHPD and the members of the community who feel ignored or rejected, it would be Anthony Campbell YC’95 DIV ’09. The current acting chief, he helps out as a prison minister in his free time and volunteers at Vertical Church to manage young children during service.

When he spoke to The Politic on critical questions about community policing, he answered: “Part of community policing is getting to know who’s in your neighborhood.”

While Campbell may not be representative of the whole NHPD, he seemed to have a thorough understanding of the issues facing New Haven. For example, one of his ideas for better policing is to hire more officers and promote current ones to first-line supervisors, sergeants, so they manage fewer officers at once, leading to better oversight. He has also worked with City Hall to work to fund cell phones for all officers so that community members can reach them, and give all officers body cameras. His opinion on Internal Affairs, which he once directed, and police accountability was positive, but Campbell conceded that more could be done. One quote stood out: “Be as transparent as possible.” To him, New Haven has a bright future ahead. “I believe New Haven is an opportunity…In most cities people are moving out, in New Haven people are moving in.” Campbell called it: “the next Boston or New York.”

He also seems to take a different path from Esserman. A few days ago, BLM, labor groups, immigrant groups and Barbara Fair were at City Hall, protesting city conditions. Campbell’s reply: “Let them have their voices heard”. Asked about Esserman’s choice last year to restrict Barbara Fair from attending CompStat meetings, Campbell replied, “I didn’t necessarily agree with that.”

Perhaps Campbell’s tone and approach is what New Haven needs to build bridges in its community. His realistic statement aids that point: “Police departments need to be upfront when they make mistakes.” Importantly, he has a grasp of the complexities of policing. He said that people have to realize that when others see the uniform, they see law and order, but also pain and injustice. “We need to have far more dialogue with the community when major incidents occur.”

While there is a gap between police and activists, who often feel suppressed or ostracized, Pastor John Lewis of New Life Ministries may have a solution.

He believes in nonviolence as a solution to help the New Haven community move forward.  He firmly believes that the character of a community, police and activist, black and white, must be changed together. “You cannot put the onus on one man…Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil.”

Citing a recent success, he explained how the Yale Police Department went through the nonviolence program he promotes. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for more members of the community, and more members of the police, to consider Lewis’ ideals for the city.

For the difficult issues facing the country, Lewis has one prerequisite for successful conciliation: “We’ve got to have the conversation.” Asked about the Black Lives Matter movement and the unrest sweeping the nation in general, “We’re talking about 400 years of silence that the black community has felt.”

The words the activists and the police chief have spoken are heartfelt, pained, but still hopeful for the Elm City. Even though the community may feel a divide with the NHPD and incidents such as Holly Tucker’s and police shootings can inflame the community, for New Haven to move forward, it needs to be open to discussion and self-reflection.

When people who care about the city wish to speak to leadership and the police, that is in New Haven’s best interests. In the current political climate, simple and open discussion between ordinary people can make all the difference. Leaders come and go; today, Esserman still lectures at Yale Law School, and has found a new job at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. But what is most important for New Haven is to build a strong sense of shared belonging among all residents, uniformed or not. That human connection is deeper and warmer than the agenda of any particular alder, mayor, or chief.

For John Lewis, the tragedy of the the Dallas shooter can be in part explained because of his dangerous feelings of helplessness: “He became silent in his words…We don’t want that.”

Let us hope that New Haven will hear all sides.

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