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2015-2016 Issue II Editors' Picks Local

Chronic Condition: A Portrait of a Neighborhood Under Community Policing

235 Church Street, New Haven, CT

It’s Your Right to Film the Police – Drop the Charges.

No Honest Court = No Justice.

Black Lives Matter.

Ten protesters stand in the shadow of the New Haven County Courthouse, waving construction paper signs toward the busy street. They have come seeking justice—not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. As the cars whiz by on Elm Street, a major artery through the heart of the city, pedestrians amble along. Some crane their heads to look; others make a study of the sidewalk. I strike up a conversation with one of the protesters, a woman named Jane Mills. She tells me she’s with a group called the People Against Injustice. I ask her why she is here.

She says that, on August 17, Mykel Armour, a 21-year-old New Haven resident, uploaded a video to Facebook. The video shows his being detained and then arrested by officers of the New Haven Police Department for interfering with an officer and resisting arrest. Armour, and those protesting in his name, say he was really arrested for filming the police. In Connecticut, this is not a crime at all. In 2011, NHPD released a general order stating that police officers cannot interfere with citizens who are filming them, unless the filmers obstruct police activity or pose a threat.  

In the video, Armour appears to be doing neither. He stands in the street with his camera trained toward the sidewalk, where four or five police officers, mostly white, have stopped a few young adults, all black. Armour narrates with a playful cockiness, occasionally turning the camera around to mug for the viewer, in typical selfie style. He steps from the street onto the sidewalk and asks, “Hey, what’s going on?” The police officer asks if he has ID. He responds, “I do got ID. For what, though?” Another officer, whose name tag reads K. Malloy, fills the frame, asking again for ID. Armour and Malloy begin to argue—Malloy grabs Armour’s phone, Armour complains, the pitch of his voice rising with his indignation. Malloy says the ID is fake; Armour insists it isn’t. “I’m mad y’all fucking with me right now,” Armour says.

Malloy tries to assuage him—keep your phone in your hands, he says, “I don’t want you to be scared. You’re looking very scared right now.” Armour retorts, “The way they’ve been beating these black kids up, I should be scared.” As the six-minute video ends, Armour is placed under arrest. On the day of this protest, September 24, he will go to court.

This confrontation did not have to happen. According to New Haven’s own policing philosophy, it should not have happened. In 1991, Chief of Police Nicholas Pastore and his Deputy, Dean Esserman, brought to New Haven a new policing strategy that was sweeping the country: community policing. Given poor relations between the police and low-income neighborhoods of color, community policing was meant to be two things at once: a cure and a prophylactic. The policy asked police officers not just to patrol and protect neighborhoods, but also to become part of them. Officers were to walk the beat, meet the families, and understand the neighborhood. The policy was meant to lower crime rates and make crime less likely to happen in the first place.

Community policing is the most popular policing innovation of the past three decades. And in New Haven, it worked—for a time. In the 1990s, crime rates fell across the city. But Esserman left New Haven for New York in 1993, and Pastore resigned, after a sex scandal, in 1997. Over the next twenty years, the police department backed away from its community engagement. Crime rates inched up again. In 2011, Esserman returned, this time as Chief, and resuscitated community policing.

In a perfect world of community policing, Officer Malloy would have known Mykel and Mykel would have known him. There would have been no anger, no fear, no confrontation, no escalation. Mykel wouldn’t need to film anything at all—why film the police if you trust them? Why film the police if you don’t feel threatened?

I doubt that anyone, Chief Esserman included, would argue that community policing could be implemented perfectly, here in New Haven or anywhere else. But among New Haven residents and activists, there is a sense that community policing is not a cure or a prophylactic, but just another symptom of the underlying condition: racial inequality.

At the courthouse, as members of Black Lives Matter New Haven, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the People Against Injustice continue their protest, I ask Jane Mills how the petition to get Armour’s charges dropped has been received. Any word from the mayor? The alders? “Not a thing,” she responds. Have any elected officials been helpful? Mills nods because one name comes immediately to mind: State Senator Gary Winfield. He, she says, is always helpful.

***

Winchester Avenue

Senator Winfield (or Gary, as he is more commonly known) is not a grassroots activist. But he used to be—in the early 2000s, he was even a member of the People Against Injustice. And that might explain why he has focused so squarely and so successfully on addressing the issues that collided on the day that Mykel Armour filmed the police: racial justice, juvenile justice, and police reform.

Last June, a bill Winfield co-sponsored, SB 1109: An Act Concerning Excessive Use of Force, became law. Among other provisions, it requires police officers to wear body cameras and makes their departments liable when officers stop citizens from filming them. In a press release following its passage, Winfield said, “We can no longer hold to the notion that fictive boundaries of the state hold out the real failings of human beings because they wear the uniforms of law enforcement.”

This sounds like the exact opposite of the sunny rhetoric that usually surrounds community policing. It’s clear that Winfield’s criticism of the police comes from what he sees every day, right on his doorstep. From his doorstep—or more precisely, two feet to the left of it—I survey the neighborhood. Winfield’s house, a buttercup yellow colonial, faces Winchester Avenue and sits a block away from Newhall Street, which bears the same namesake as the neighborhood: Newhallville. We are on the edge of Winfield’s district, which covers half of New Haven, from Yale and its Golf Club to the black, working class neighborhoods of Dixwell and Newhallville. It’s been two centuries since George Newhall made this the home of his Carriage Emporium, which reached global prominence—that is, until the world changed, his fortunes changed, and the money ran out.

This is Newhallville: a neighborhood of changing fortunes. Sitting next to Senator Winfield on his porch, I see outsized signs for Science Park, Yale’s extensive, expensive, attempt to fill in the gaping hole created by the late 20th century decline of Newhallville’s industry. Five minutes down the street looms the old Winchester Repeating Arms Factory, once a bustling industrial giant, now luxury lofts that look straight from the pages of Dwell. And yet, Newhallville still has a reputation. It’s the sort of place where the headlines are all muggings, mayhem, and murder. That means it’s also the sort of place where community policing is meant to do its best work, bringing the police and the community together to solve persistent problems.

Despite the deadlines, on this Saturday morning in October, Newhallville is beautiful: the light filters through scarlet and gold leaves, and the houses are as colorful as a box of crayons. I have come to ask about policing, but we begin by talking about the neighborhood. Winfield, 41 years old, a state senator since 2008, tells me about Newhallville’s promise, and its problems, tightly intertwined.

“It’s an easy place to see that there could be potential value,” he says. Newhallville, within walking distance from Yale, is a prime candidate for gentrification. Winfield continues, “People are coming to extract that value out of the community.” Those people include Yale, the real estate magnates who redeveloped the Winchester Factory, and white people buying houses in a neighborhood that is 85 percent black.

“Two years ago,” Winfield says. “I came out of my house; it’s like 2:30 in the morning. And there’s a white girl, and she’s got the blonde ponytail, and she’s got the shorts on and she’s running down this way.” He points in the opposite direction of the lofts and Yale. “And I’m like, you’re running deeper into the hood? This is amazing! Because you never would have seen it before.”

But while new money and new people came in, Winfield saw that life was not getting better for Newhallville’s residents. And so, he decided to run for office and “find out why the hell this was going on.” He ran an unsuccessful campaign for alder and then became a state representative in 2008. In 2013, he launched a bid for mayor, got elbowed out of the primary by current Mayor Toni Harp, who had the blessing of the Democratic establishment, and eventually took the state senate seat she vacated in 2014. He is one of three African-Americans state senators, out of 36 total, in Connecticut.

While Winfield has used his reputation as an outsider, an insurgent, to chip away at some problems, Newhallville’s deeper issues—the structural problems of segregation, poverty, and disenfranchisement—remain. And those issues contribute to its fraught relationship with the New Haven Police Department. We talk about these problems as I accompany Winfield in doing what he says won him his elections: walking the neighborhood. We step off of the porch and hit the sidewalk.

***

Winchester Avenue and Thompson Street

At the end of the block, where Winchester intersects with Thompson Street, we walk past the Taurus Club, where drug dealing and gunshots bring the police time and time again, and reach the International Package Store. Neon signs advertise Budweiser and Coors Light, posters hawk $8 bottles of wine and dreams of the lotto. This store, and a tiny grocery a block away, are the only places to get food for a few miles. Winfield tells me that the Package Store is a gathering place, “but not for people who are going to work, not for people who are staying out of trouble.”

In Newhallville, jobs are hard to come by. “You know the chances of a young black person from this community getting a job downtown?” Winfield asks me. I picture the stores that surround Yale’s campus in the center of the city: the Urban Outfitters, the J. Crew, the coffee shops bathed in the glow of MacBook screens. He doesn’t wait for an answer before he dismisses the question with a chuckle.

“Go to Hamden?” Hamden is a middle class town just five miles away, praised by CNN for its job opportunities and “quaint New England charm.” But, says Winfield, “They don’t want you in Hamden.” And there is a mall in Milford, a town 15 minutes away by car. Perhaps Newhallville’s teenagers, like their peers across the country, could get jobs at Footlocker or Forever21. The bus to Milford, though, takes an hour and a half each way. Most people here rely entirely on public transportation. So, Winfield asks, “How are you gonna work? Where do you work?”

We keep walking. There’s a pause in the conversation and playground sounds—peals of laughter, the rhythmic creak of swing sets—fill the air.

“So, I wanted to ask about community policing,” I say. Winfield laughs out loud.

“Here’s my thing,” he begins. “When you think about it, the mayor and the chief are interested in community policing because it’s gonna fix whatever the problem is, right?” But according to Winfield, “We never defined the problem.”

The problem might be violence. Or unemployment. Or racial inequality. Or all of the above. Have the mayor and the police chief revived community policing because it solves these problems? Or because it solves a public relations problem?

For Winfield, and the other people who live on Winchester, and Newhall, and Hazel, and Ivy, and Lilac, even a friendly police presence is still a problem. Because it’s still a presence. And for Winfield, that presence is inextricably linked to race. His voice rises, “If you were in a white neighborhood, do you really think the answer to any problem would be we need to put more police in that community?” I try to imagine Officer Malloy walking the beat in the wealthy East Rock neighborhood, past the stately Italianate mansions, stopping to talk to the people there about what they’re doing and where they’re going. I try to imagine him inserting himself into their lives, hovering at the edges, a constant presence. I stop trying to imagine this. There’s no point.

Though the powers that be in this city—Mayor Toni Harp, Mayor John DeStefano before her, and Chief Dean Esserman—offer community policing as a solution, those who work for justice reform see it as the symptom of the underlying problem. Certain neighborhoods and their residents are labeled as criminal. The constant policing makes the label stick.

Winfield says he has butted heads with Harp and Esserman over community policing. He adds, “I know it irritates the Chief every time I say, what you say you’re doing is not what’s happening.” But he plans to keep at it. “I’m going to keep sticking them until they do what they need to do.”

I think back a few days, to when I spoke to Barbara Fair, one of the city’s staunchest advocates for racial justice. When I asked her about community policing, her reaction was similar to Senator Winfield’s: a dismissive shake of the head. There was, she says, a time when there was “real” community policing: cops got to know the neighborhood not because they were always on patrol, but because they lived there. It was their community, too. And yes, they were still law enforcement officers, but for residents, they didn’t feel like outsiders. Those cops, many black, have largely retired. Most of the force now lives in the suburbs.

“Now, the officers, you can’t even ask them a question. They’re so belligerent,” she said. “They look at you like you’re a suspect. And people get tired of that.”

In the video, Mykel was tired of it—you can hear it in his rising voice, colored by indignation and fatigue. And you can hear it in what he says, more to himself than to anyone else: “The way they’ve been beating these black kids up, I should be scared.”

And, I would guess, Officer Malloy was tired, too. How does it feel to be sent to police a community that does not even want you there? To be the physical manifestation of the disconnect between New Haven’s leaders and its residents?

***

State Street

A few weeks later, on an early Saturday evening, I walk with Officer Jennifer McDermott from the austere headquarters of the New Haven Police Department to the parking lot around back. I slide into the passenger seat of her squad car and try not to gawk at the holding pen behind me.

McDermott checks in with dispatch and in a second we’re zooming down State Street, headed to the beat she has patrolled for two of her three years as a cop in New Haven: District 7, which covers Cedar Hill, East Rock, and Newhallville. For the first half of her eight-hour shift, which lasts from 4:00pm to midnight, I will ride with McDermott to see what community policing, and Newhallville, look like from her eyes.

Winchester Avenue, Again

McDermott, blonde hair pulled into a tight bun, looking younger than her 36 years, begins by taking me on a tour of the neighborhood. We drive past Senator Winfield’s house, windows aglow, and turn onto Sheffield Avenue. “I’m here more than I’m with my own kids,” she says. “And I see the same people over and over.” There’s the woman in the white house addicted to PCP, the men who spend hours on the stoop in front of a yellow house, smoking and drinking and lounging.

The regulars aren’t just people: over the next eight hours we pass a dozen corner stores. They all have the same flavor: tiny establishments advertising check cashing and more lotto dreams. “Every one of these corner stores is selling,” she tells me. Crack and PCP are usually in stock. Tonight, though, McDermott says the corners are emptier than usual.

An electronic chime dings: it’s McDermott’s first call of the night, to an automated alarm at a church on Division Street. We arrive and wait a moment for backup. It comes in the form of two officers in another car, both young guys. “Need some help, Jen?” one asks. For a moment, they exchange jokes: of the alarm, one says, “Could just be Jesus!” There’s nothing to be done here—the building is locked, and as we pull away, the sound pulsates down the block. Yet, none of the neighbors has called 911 to report the possible break in. “Even after shots fired, people sometimes don’t call the police,” McDermott says. “They’re afraid.”

We drive by a small park, where teenagers stand around and little kids run around. “The officers usually kick them out of this area,” McDermott says, probably for loitering. She wouldn’t, though. “Where else are they going to go?” She decides that we should go talk to them. We approach three girls, no older than ten, sitting a tree. Officer McDermott is all friendly hellos as she walks up to them, and I trail behind. The girls look our way and then back at each other. “What are you all up to?” McDermott asks. Building a tree fort, they respond. The ground is littered with construction debris: a broken tree branch, a bundle of paper streamers. “Are you guys gonna clean up?” McDermott asks, sounding very much like a mother of four kids. They nod quickly.

In one sense, there is no tension here. The girls aren’t in trouble—this sounds like the gentle chastisement you would get from the lady next door. But the dark blue uniform and the New Haven Police Department car are enough to put the kids on edge.

This scene – friendless met with edginess – plays out all night, in ways big and small. On Winchester, we pass a house where a black woman with a lined face stands on the porch, immobile. McDermott slows down the car and calls out, “Hi, how are you doing?” The woman barely reacts, barely nods. “She gets beat a lot,” McDermott says, telling me that she and her boyfriend drink a lot, and fight a lot.

As we complete circuits around the neighborhood, we pass a group of a few kids, led by a teenage girl sporting magnificent purple box braids. “What are you guys doing?” McDermott asks. The kids stop and look at each other. “Nothin’” one responds. Over the course of the night, we pass them at least twice more. It looks like they, too, are spending their night completing circuits of the neighborhood, though I wonder why. Each time we see them, they eye us over their shoulders.

If community policing means being engaged and friendly, then Officer McDermott has succeeded. But policymakers promised more than that. Community policing was meant to close the gap between officers and residents not just by improving their demeanor, but by getting them to solve problems together. Tonight, though, it seems like the barriers to trust may be too high.

The sun has gone down, and the streetlights cast light and shadow against the pastel houses. On a low concrete wall abutting an empty lot, someone has spray painted Black Lives Matter. I ask McDermott about this movement and the high-profile police killings over the past few years: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. How have they changed her time on the beat?

“Let’s say I go to a call and someone gets arrested. The whole community comes out. They’ll bring up issues of police brutality and they’ll bring up race,” she says. McDermott makes an effort: going to community management team meetings, getting to know the local alders. “But sometimes,” she says, “They don’t want me involved in what they’re doing… they don’t want police in there.” The city pushes community policing, but McDermott adds, “Sometimes they don’t want us here.”

That statement lingers in the air. I’m unsure of how to respond, so I ask her about her body camera, a black plastic square clipped to her shirt.  Does it change how she interacts with people here? “I don’t change the way I speak to people,” she says. “This is just another tool that could help me. I don’t think it could hurt me.” Sometimes, after she gets back to the station, she re-watches the footage, hoping to learn something.

The police may be filming, but the people are too. When she goes to calls, she says, many residents announce, “I’m videotaping you!” She says doesn’t have a problem with it—after all, she’s videotaping them, too. I gingerly ask if she’s seen the Mykel Armour video. No, she says. “But show me!” We pull into an empty parking lot and I pull up the video on my phone.

At 0:46 seconds, Armour steps from the street onto the sidewalk, where the police officers were in the middle of asking the men they had stopped for ID. “You don’t have ID?” one officer says. “For what though?” Mykel responds.

McDermott pinpoints this moment. “He walked into the scene,” she says. According to her, that meant he was interfering, and thus became part of the loitering complaint. As we watch Armour and Officer Malloy’s confrontation, she tells me that Malloy is a seven-year veteran of the force, and a “very good officer.”

Re-watching the video with Officer McDermott, I begin to think that Officer Malloy and his colleagues don’t seem that unreasonable. “We got a call, all you guys hanging out here…a suspicious person call, so we’re all showing up,” Malloy says, shrugging. Another officer chimes in: “You can’t gamble in the park, guys. We told you this many times. We give you breaks and breaks and breaks.”

Armour, having been told to sit down on the curb, calls out to Malloy, “That’s not a fake ID either, you heard?” Malloy asks him where he got it. “Uh, I got it down at a pawn shop.” So, it’s fake, Malloy says.

“Word? It’s not a regular card?”

“Word. Until we figure out who you are, can you put your hands behind your back?”

This was not quite the narrative put forth at the protest outside of the County Courthouse. They say that Armour was arrested because the police didn’t like being filmed. McDermott says, “He got his balls broken because he stepped into the scene and was sassy…It’s not about photography. We get filmed all the time.”

We can wonder who’s telling the “truth” here, but to do so misses the point. Instead, we can examine the reality: in the video, a young black man and a police officer have a needless confrontation. Mykel Armour didn’t pose much of a threat and he probably didn’t need to be arrested. (And, on September 24, his charges were dropped). Officer Malloy was aggressive in some moments, like when he tussled with Armour over the phone, but kind in others: “I don’t want you to be scared.” I can believe McDermott when she says that he’s a good officer. But this incident shows that, even under petty circumstances, the underlying tension between communities of color and the police can easily spiral out of control.

***

Ferry Street and English Street

It’s just after 7:30pm. Suddenly, there’s another electronic ding. McDermott says something into her radio and turns the on the flashing lights. She hits the gas. Hard. I’m pushed back into my seat. I don’t ask what’s happening.

We speed to the corner of Ferry and English, joining at least four other police cars. They illuminate everything in pulsating blue and red light. Police officers, mostly white, have a pinned a man to the pavement. A woman is screaming. Both are black.

“If something happens to him, we’ve got him on record!” In her hands, a cellphone. Filming the police. She bellows, “HE SAID HE CAN’T BREATHE. CHECK HIS CHEST!”

Standing on the opposite corner, those words ring through my head. He said he can’t breathe. I think about Eric Garner, about his horrific death on a hot city sidewalk, about the movement to save black lives like his, and this one, and mine. I press my fingernails into my palms.

The woman says that one of the officers kicked the man in the chest. In a second, they walk him to the back of a police wagon. Officer McDermott goes to talk to the woman and assure her that the man is not injured. “That’s why black people these days are getting hurt—because of officers like you,” the woman spits.

Back in the car, my time with her almost over, McDermott tells me that she tried to do some “community policing after the fact”: calm the woman down, offer the suspect some water. “She was pissed,” McDermott says. “But I didn’t see anything about black and white when I went on scene…I saw two police officers trying to detain him.”

It sounds like something she said an hour ago, when we were talking about the video. “I can honestly say that I don’t know any officers in this department who are racist,” McDermott told me. I know that she is thinking of the naked, open racism that has defined so much of American history: the slurs and epithets, the black bodies toiling in cotton fields. McDermott, like many of us, doesn’t recognize that racism today is usually much less visceral. Instead, it’s become insidious: persisting in the structure of our public policy, and in the subtleties of everyday life here. It is not just in the blood of this country, but in its very bones, seeping through to the marrow.

Community policing–and for that matter, any kind of policing–cannot address history or its lingering effects. But there are those who, given the pain of the past, and the obstacles of the present,

continue the fight for justice. These are the people I met on September 24, when they took to the sidewalk in front of the New Haven County Courthouse to defend Mykel Armour. They were black and white, twenty-somethings and senior citizens, veteran activists and those protesting for the very first time. It wasn’t just about a six-minute video or one man or one police officer: it was about speaking out for racial equality, in the face of indifference and hostility. There was one moment that I cannot forget: a white woman in a shiny gray SUV stopped at the intersection of Elm Street and Church Street and rolled down her window. “My father’s a cop,” she shouted. “If you weren’t doing anything wrong, you wouldn’t get arrested!” The protesters respond to this outburst with derision; the harsh words don’t hurt them. They just prove their point.

 

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