Cop Of The Week

by Paul Bass | April 17, 2007 12:06 PM | | Comments (4)

duff%202.jpgWhen his neighborhood cops needed to deal with a household of teens causing trouble, Sgt. Anthony Duff called on lessons learned in a past career — as a clothing store manager.

Duff, who’s 41, is the top cop assigned to the Dixwell neighborhood, a calm, mild-mannered omnipresence. How he responded to the problems emanating from stressed grandmother Virgie Strother’s apartment on Bristol Street — how he approaches crime in general — speaks volumes about what “community policing” truly means. It shows how, in neighborhoods like Dixwell and Fair Haven, the concept as hatched in New Haven retains a foothold.

It’s a concept based on cops earning the trust of neighbors, and working with them on smaller problems before they grow bigger. And it’s an approach that views arrests as a last, not a first, resort.

Bristol Street Redux

One approach — the old-style police approach — to what has developed on Bristol Street would have involved continually rounding up suspected troublemakers or their friends and arresting them. That would have put a lot of people in jail, brought temporary relief to neighbors. The arrestees probably wouldn’t have stayed behind bars for long. The cops wouldn’t have gotten to the bottom of problems that fester on the street, or that could move a few blocks away if Bristol Street became a militarized zone.

Duff tried a different approach when he started receiving complaints from Bristol Street two years ago.

Bristol runs one block long, between Dixwell Avenue and Ashmun Street, in the heart of New Haven’s oldest African-American neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the downtown Broadway shopping district. An elderly housing complex, Edith B. Johnson, towers over the homes on the rest of the block. In the 1980s Bristol Street was a hotbed of drug-related violence. It grew quiet amid the advent of community policing in the 1990s.

Then in 2005 Sgt. Duff started getting the calls about shots fired, intimidating teens hanging on the street, drug-dealing. One elderly woman felt the need to call neighbors to escort her in and out of her apartment.

It wasn’t like the old days. But it had the potential to become like the old days.

The incidents Duff looked into seemed tied to two apartments in a three-story brick apartment building next door to Edith B. Johnson. He visited the apartments, got to know the occupants, who had recently moved in. He checked out who was getting into trouble. He convinced the complex’s owner to sign a “standing complaint form” allowing cops access to hallways and other common areas on the property.

Duff gathered reports about people arrested on Bristol Street, as well as complaints called in. He prepared written reports for officers so they’d know the hot spots and the people tending to be involved.

He also obtained a list of all tenants in the brick apartment building. The list came in handy when the feds were looking for a man wanted on a felony gun charge; with Duff’s help they tracked him down and made the arrest. Most of the young people he needed to watch, though, weren’t committing felonies. At least not yet. Steering them into courts or jails as a first step didn’t seem like the most effective strategy.

“We do have people in this neighborhood who need to be in jail,” Duff said. “There aren’t that many right now. When significant crimes occur, we get information from residents that enable us to make arrests.

“There are so many different facts to law enforcment. On the outside looking in, you say, ‘Oh, you go arrest people.’ Arrests are a useful tool. I don’t too carried away with them. All an arrest does is bring somebody before a court. Our chiefs have often said, ‘We don’t go in looking to arrest our way out of a long-term problem.’ I don’t want to go out and lock up all the would-be perpetrators on Bristol Street.”

In one of the two targeted apartments was a young man who’d had brushes with the law. The tough kids he hung out with started hanging out on Bristol Street once he moved there. Duff lined up a job interview for the young man at Popeye’s, two blocks away. That didn’t work out. Then Duff set up a meeting with the young man and organizers of the Christian Community Commission, which has programs for unemployed youth. The organizers came to the substation for the meeting; the young man didn’t. Duff left the station and found him on the street, brought him in. They had the meeting, discussed ways the organizers could help.

Soon afterwards, the young man was shot. His family then moved to Orchard Street. That “problem” had left Bristol Street, but remained in Dixwell. Soon there were complaints from the new house; in the summer of 2006 Duff helped get the house condemned. Duff also linked the young man up with one of his cops, Shafiq Abdussabur, who was running a youth program in the neighborhood. Abdussabur took neighborhood kids on trips out of town that summer. He also later brought the young man to C-Town when the supermarket opened in Dixwell Plaza, and lined him up a job.

Duff has no illusions about the challenge of turning around young people’s lives. He also knows the importance of keeping on trying “to get them somehow employed or engaged in some kind of meaningful activity.” The trips out of town help, including lowering the volume on the streets back home, although that, too, is only temporary, he noted.

Duff also linked Abdussabur with two teenagers in the other apartment at the root of the new problems on Bristol Street, the apartment where Virgie Strothers has one of the toughest jobs in town — raising grandchildren whose parents are out of the picture.


Vergie%20Strother.jpgStrothers (pictured) had already raised two grandchildren. Now she had custody of two teen-aged boys, who run with a tough crowd. One of the boys had already been shot at Dixwell Plaza by the time he was 15.

She complains about some of the cops she comes into contact with because of her children. She got to know Duff soon after her move to Bristol Street, and came to like and trust him. One hot summer day she called him, and he got permission for the kids to use a sprinkler on a fire hydrant. Another time Duff intervened for her to clear up a mix-up that had one of her grandchildren booked for an offense for which he’d already been previously charged.

“It’s hard” raising grandchildren in New Haven, Strother, a 65-year-old former nurse’s assistant, said with a sigh the other day. Every few minutes people were coming in and out of the apartment, mostly relatives, young, old, in between; it was a busy and somewhat chaotic place. “They don’t even have to be involved in something. If they’re with somebody, if they’re in the same part of town,” kids can get in trouble.

One day Strother called Duff in distress. Her then-14-year-old grandson was home, on house arrest. Her daughter was outside on Bristol Street. Some young men rode by on bikes. One told her to tell the boy inside, “Some boys are gonna come by to shoot him.” Strother called the police. Two officers arrived. In Strother’s view, “they took it as a joke.’” Especially the officer who counseled her, “You better send him down South. Or you better get a vigil candle.” When they left, she phoned Duff to complain.

Duff sat down with the officer. Not to reprimand him. To talk.

Duff learned that the officer, fearing for the boy’s safety, wanted to convince Strother to get him out of town in order to protect him. “I was just trying to let her know the seriousness of it,” he said. “Maybe she didn’t understand my wit.”

Duff understood. He then told the officer why the comment was counterproductive. “She [Strother] took it as sarcasm. He felt this kid could be killed if he is kept in this environment. [But] they’re calling us looking for protection. We don’t want them to think we’re insensitive.” Equally important, a message was sent that the cops can’t protect people — the last message the cops need to send people who are scared.

“We are going to go there again. This woman is calling for assistance. We can’t tell her it’s beyond our control,” Duff said.

The New Mold

Sgt%20Duff.jpgThe encounter reminded Duff of encounters he had before he became a cop, when he managed two stores — Barry Cobden’s Campus Clothing and Boola Boola — a few blocks from Dixwell, on Broadway. The bottom line came down to “customer service.”

“Managing officers is like managing employees in any other business, especially when dealing with the public,” Duff said in a conversation the other day in his organized office at the Dixwell police substation. R&B played softly from the player on his desk, tuned to WYBC. Before he became a cop, Duff used to co-host a Friday show on WYBC. Before that, as a college student, he was the station’s manager.

Duff was the epitome of the new breed of cop New Haven was looking for in order to cement community policing when he joined the force in 1996 — educated, African-American, rooted in the community, and peaceful.

Duff came to New Haven from Forrest City, Arkansas, to study sociology at Yale. He stayed after graduation because he liked it here — and he loved a Southern student named Miya. He and Miya were married at Bethel AME on Goffe Street. Their after-wedding party was at the Elks Club. Miya became a city schoolteacher; she and Anthony are raising four children.

When he turned 30, “I decided I needed to do something else” besides retail. He had always wanted to become a lawyer; for now, he could pursue his interest in criminal justice through patrolling the streets he’d come to know well. (He still hopes to attend law school one day.) His view of the job dovetailed with the once-brutal department’s new philosophy. He wasn’t motivated by the thought of “going around trying to arrest people,” he said. “I’m more people-oriented than just hunting wanted people.”

Abdussabur, the Dixwell cop who developed the CTRIBAT youth program in the neighborhood in response to a spike in violence, said Duff encouraged him at every step. Duff saw his efforts as part of police work. “every time I need to do something, Sgt. Duff says, ‘Go ahead,’” Abdussabur said. “He is the epitome of a district manager. Everybody knows him. They know how to get in touch with him. He’s around, even after hours. He’s a mediator.”

A mediator takes on a more complicated challenge than does a gunslinger or a Beat-Down Posse. Duff and his cops haven’t eliminated the problem on Bristol Street. One of Virgie Strother’s two children is indeed down South at the moment, not by her choice, referred to a program there by the authorities. The Dixwell cops are still working on steering the kids to productive activity. Duff is also considering taking the next step: launching a “supplemental beat patrol” on the block. It’s a tool he has used on Tilton Street and on County Street in the face of an ongoing problem. For up to 18 months officers stop by two or three times a day, to watch and to be seen. They walk around, chat up people; they find out not just who’s causing trouble, but who has been, say, smoking their paychecks and may be heading for trouble.

There aren’t enough cops to have permanent “supplemental patrols” on every block all the time. Thankfully, Sgt. Duff’s Dixwell doesn’t need them. In the world of community policing, the battle takes place one block at a time.

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

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

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Posted by: Edward_H | April 17, 2007 1:55 PM

What a fantastic story. I am looking forward to more of this series. Keep up the good work Paul.

Posted by: Esbe [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 2:06 PM

The "Cop of the week" is always a highlight of my week. I love the idea of these folks getting the recognition that they deserve.

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 4:50 PM

I have join in and say "ditto" and it is a good way to get to know the officers of the city.

Posted by: OH WELL | April 18, 2007 7:55 AM

I have had the pleasure in working with this fine dedicated young man. He an example of an old word that we use to use POLICEMAN .Not the new street slang Cop.that's the problem we have to many COPS.

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