Cop of the Week

by Paul Bass | March 8, 2006 4:17 PM |

Alan Wenk, a longtime walking-beat cop in Fair Haven whose idea of fun is hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, was cooped up in a patrol car all morning Wednesday. He found a way to do true community policing anyway.

Wenk, 49, is one of the original and longest-lasting, “community” cops in town. He’s been an officer for 25 years. In 1990, as New Haven revolutionized its approach to policing, he began walking a beat in Fair Haven. He hasn’t left since.

The idea behind instituting walking beats like his was to get cops out of cars and in direct, daily touch with one neighborhood. The idea was to stop small problems before they turn into big problems. To prevent crime rather than chase after it and make arrests. Wenk spent years patrolling the area around Lloyd and Exchange streets. Then Ferry Street. Then Grand Avenue.

Budget cuts have led the police department to scale back on walking beats. So for the past couple of years, Wenk has been resopnding to calls and cruising the streets on the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift from behind the wheel of his department Crown Victoria, his sole companion a mounted Panasonic “Toughbook” laptop computer.

“When you’re on the walking beat, you have more accountability. You’re there all the time,” he said. “People expect you to get something done. If somebody tells you about a complaint, you’re going to see them again. You’re going to have to say, ‘I’m doing A, B or C about this.’ People appreciate you more when you’re on a walking beat.” When you patrol by car, Wenk said, “you’re in their house” for an incident, then might not see them again for years.

And yet… to ride around Fair Haven with Wenk Wednesday morning was to watch community policing — close-up personal interaction, reliance on personal relationships, finding ways to prevent crimes before they occur — in action. No major crimes occurred. Wenk may have helped prevent some future crimes from occurring. Partly that’s because Wenk makes a point of stopping to talk with people and check up on brewing problems in between driving to and from calls. He also builds on relationships he developed from his 13 years on foot.

Court? Or The Hospital?

Wenk knew Shannon from when she worked Ferry Street. He also knew there was a “person missing” report out on her.

As soon as he began his shift Wednesday, Wenk got a call to drive across the Quinnipiac River to Essex Street, where Shannon was causing a problem. Shannon, in her 30s, was “bugging out” and demanding to enter her mother’s house. Mom didn’t want her in.

Shannon was apparently high on crack. When Wenk arrived, he told the other officer there he knew Shannon, gave him the rundown on her. “She has a pretty good personality. When’s she cracked out, she doesn’t have such a good personality,” Wenk said.

The officers succeeded in convincing Shannon to leave. But then Shannon walked out into the street. She waved her arms, spun around in circles, got in the way of passing cars. The cops had Shannon transported to Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“Could we have made a trespass arrest?” Wenk asked as he sat in his car writing up the incident report. “Absolutely. But what would be more important for this particular girl? Go to court? Or go to a hospital? She’s a drug addict. She’s bipolar and not taking her medication.”

Welcome Wagon

Wenk pulled onto Ferry Street. He was looking for a new streetwalker he’d noticed in the neighborhood. He likes to have a get-to-know-you talk with new women on the street, to establish the rules, what kind of behavior will land the woman in jail, like walking in traffic or loitering on a corner.

“You try to be honest with them,” he said. “You say, ‘What are you doing out here?’ I know what they’re doing out here. But I want to see if they’re being honest. If they say they’ve been walking up and down Ferry Street for six hours looking for an apartment, the truth is going to come out, because people talk to me. They look out the window and see you getting into cars.”

Wenk has observed some of the collateral damage of Fair Haven’s prostitution trade: the impact on the overwhelming majority of women who regularly walk the street not selling their bodies. “I know girls who work at C-Town. By the time they walk on Ferry to Grand Avenue, they’re in tears from guys hassling them.”

The woman wasn’t in sight. On the walking beat, Wenk used to be able to catch up with a new streetwalker within hours; now it can take days.

Bernardo was in sight. He was about to enter Rocco’s Pastry Shop. Wenk pulled over, lowered the passenger window. “How did Raul do with therapy?” Wenk asked. “He needs to put on some weight.”

Wenk parked, greeted Bernardo on the sidewalk. Between the cop’s smidgeons of Spanish and Bernardo’s smidgeons of English, they carried on an extended conversation, catching up. Bernardo spent 14 years in prison in his native Cuba after he participated in the Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. He came to the U.S. on a raft, eventually settled in New Haven. The man has a back injury but still likes to work, Wenk said. Wenk makes a point of checking in on him; he got to know him on the beat.

Back in the car, Wenk cruised the area around Chatham and Rowe streets. He wanted to see if the cars were parked illegally too close to the intersection. Yep, one was. He stopped, wrote a ticket. The illegal parking makes it dangerously difficult for drivers to see other drivers at the intersection, he said. Again, he made a comparison to how he’d handle the situation differently on a walking beat: He’d keep after the car owners more, catch up with them to talk. He’d explain the problem, give them some warning tickets, allow them a chance to decide to follow the rules; then he’d hand out the fines, then perhaps even arrest them, if they persisted. Still, even on wheels, he was doing his best to keep on top of the situation.

Back Across The River

Wenk took out his cell and dialed a number he’d been trying for an hour. It was a number at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Earlier that morning the woman at the other end had called the police from the hospital. She said she feared that her teen-aged daughter at home, who has a suspended license, was going to take her keys and drive the car. She asked that the police take the keys and bring them to the hospital.

Wenk’s supervisor wanted Wenk to call the mother in the hospital to inform her that the police don’t deliver keys to the hospital. For an hour, Wenk tried to reach the woman. The line was busy. Now he gave up. He decided to go to their house after all and talk to the daughter, whom he knew since she was a baby. He got to know the girl and her mother because of occasional domestic disputes, and occasional assaults, that took place there.

Wenk tried the front door. No answer. Then he walked around back. At least the car was still there.

Then a call came over the police radio. He needed to drive back across the river again, into Fair Haven Heights, to assist an officer who was dealing with a schizophrenic man who needed to go to the hospital. The man was apparently out of control.

Picking up speed, Wenk reflected on how unpredictable these calls can be. “Sometimes you can talk to a person like this and things can be OK. Sometimes the person can be incoherent or abrasive. You can have the fight of your life. Or the person can walk to the ambulance and you have no problem.”

A Hot Bag

By the time he arrived at an apartment complex on Russell Street, the emergency medical crew had already arrived. Wenk walked toward the apartment to encounter the crew and the officer wheeling out the schizophrenic man. The man was at peace now. No struggle.

A voice came from the open door to another apartment.

“How are you my love?” a woman called. She was talking to Wenk. She had something to tell him.

Wenk knew the woman from his years walking the beat around Exchange Street. She was involved with drug gangs then. She went to jail a couple of times. But, Wenk said, they did develop a rapport. He and other officers raised money for Christmas meals that they delivered to her family and others on the block. They’ve stayed in touch. In the past few years, he said, she has straightened out her life.

Today she was telling Wenk about how her boyfriend died recently. The boyfriend had a serious drug problem. He also owed a dealer money. The dealer sold him a “hot bag,” or bad batch, of heroin. He overdosed and died. She was convinced the dealers did it deliberately as retaliation, to send a message. Inclined to believe her, Wenk collected information about the dealer.

“We’ll find out who he is. We will hound him,” Wenk said back in the car. “We will shake down this guy every time we see him on the street.”

The woman in the apartment has always proved a reliable informant, Wenk said. He said his relationship with her demonstrates the value of the community-policing approach. That doesn’t mean tolerating criminal behavior; the woman did her time behind bars. It does mean “being fair with people, showing them respect no matter what their walk of life.”

The Talk

“Here’s Darcy,” Wenk said upon his return to Ferry Street. Darcy is one of those neighbors who spend time on the stoop and watch the street — and call the cops. On the walking beat, Wenk checked in with her often. She regularly complained about unfamiliar cars parked on the block, sometimes illegally. Wenk would always make sure to check up on the cars. If they were stolen, or parked illegally, he’d have them towed. Darcy in turn helped keep an eye on the street for him.

“She looks pretty good,” he said, meaning happy. He pulled over to make sure. Yep, Darcy said. All’s OK today.

Still no sign of the new streetwalker on Ferry. Wenk did notice a woman he hadn’t seen before, standing on a corner in a way that made him suspicious. Especially when she started walking suddenly as she noticed his car. He decided to take notice of her in coming days.

In fact, not longer after, he saw her soliciting. So he stopped and had The Talk with her (pictured at the top of this story).

It was a remarkable exchange. She said she worked the street. Besides the obvious point that the activity is illegal (she knew that), Wenk told her about the loitering and traffic disruption that could get her arrested.

“I know you motherfuckers have a task force out here now,” she said. “They stopped me last night.”

She said it in a friendly way. She called Wenk “my buddy.” In response to Wenk’s questions, she recited the aliases she said she uses on the street. She interrupted her comments several times to circle the sidewalk and play air violin. Another officer who’d come upon the scene shook his head. “It’s early in the day to be like this,” he said.

Though he chases people like her everyday, Wenk sounded upbeat about Fair Haven. “If you turn the clock back ten years ago here, 15 years ago,” he reflected, “it is better.” The dealers are less visible, less brazen than they used to be, he said. Crime has definitely gone down.

Why? One major reason, in his view: the gradual rebuilding of the neighborhood. The city has condemned and demolished fire-trap, crime-magnet abandoned buildings throughout the neighborhood. People have built new homes in their wake and sold them to homeowners. Pine Street, Front Street, Downing Street, Main Street— you find a new house like this every couple of years on a block, and it makes a difference, Wenk said.

Another reason: people have come to work with the cops more, Wenk said. Community policing built that trust. Confined to his car, relying on relationships nurtured in the walking-beat days, Officer Alan Wenk is doing his best to maintain that trust.

(To read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(To suggest an officer to be featured, click here.)

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