Toni Harp asked Dixwell’s top cop, Sgt. Sam Brown, to show her the neighborhood trouble spots that command his officers’ attention.
In response, Brown drove her to a different neighborhood. “We’ll go to Newhallville, senator,” he told her.
Harp, a state senator who is currently one of seven Democrats running for mayor, was riding along with Sgt. Brown Thursday as part of a day devoted to fact-finding about public-safety issues. The day included a neighborhood tour with Brown, a community press conference in Edgewood, and a confab with black firefighters in the basement of the Elks Club on Webster Street.
The candidate picked up ideas about community policing and about gearing high-school kids toward firefighting jobs.
And in the process of exploring the neighborhoods with Brown, Harp ended up diving into one of the biggest public-safety mysteries facing New Haven these days: Why violent crime remains so much higher in Newhallville than in other neighborhoods. (Read a previous story about candidates’ take on that issue here.)
The Next Generation
Sam Brown had never met Harp before she parked her Acura TSX near the Edgewood police substation at 12:30 p.m. Thursday and hopped into the passenger seat of Brown’s Chevy Tahoe police supervisor’s vehicle. He was impressed she circled the block an extra time rather than park illegally in front of Amistad Academy. He was impressed she was on time.
“She seems humble,” he said.
He didn’t know that Harp had something to do with the job he had now and the way he does it. Back in 1989, Harp, then a Dwight alderwoman, co-wrote a detailed plan to bring community policing to New Haven as a position paper for the mayoral candidacy of John Daniels. Daniels made that issue number one in his platform. He put the plan into place after winning the election, and a revolutionized police force dramatically cut crime in the 1990s. Key to the plan was the creation of neighborhood patrol districts with walking beat cops who got to know neighbors and a district manager who functioned as a mini-police chief for the area. That’s now Brown’s job in Dixwell.
Harp, for her part, didn’t know that Brown is a second-generation poster-cop for the plan she coauthored. In 2011, a new police chief, Dean Esserman, revived a community policing model that had long fallen into disuse. He revived walking beats and gradually appointed new district managers. Brown took over Dixwell earlier this year. The neighborhood now goes a week or more at a time without a single reported major crime. The Dixwell map has appeared on the projection screen at the last two weekly CompStat data-sharing meetings at headquarters, for instance, without a single crime-incident icon.
Which explains why he and Harp ended up in Newhallville, not Dixwell, on Thursday.
They started in Dixwell. “Describe your area through your eyes,” Harp asked him, after inquiring about his childhood growing up in New Haven. Police often pick up on small but important problem areas before other people notice them. “One of the things about community policing is that you can look at a neighborhood and see what is going to be a trouble spot that has nothing [immediately] to do with policing” but can turn into a crime problem later on, she said.
Community policing grows out of the “broken window” theory that cops can prevent bigger crimes from happening by working with civilians to address small problems—loitering, idle kids on a corner, tensions at a school at dismissal time, arguments between families or groups of young people, actual broken windows.
“A month and a half ago there was a shooting right there,” Brown said as they drove past County Street. He spoke of how neighbors have started calling him and other cops regularly about crimes more often these days; he said they prefer to provide information after the fact rather than be seen talking to cops at the scene. “They don’t want to put themselves on ‘blast,’” Brown said. “They will talk to you in a different setting.”
They drove by two liquor stores on Dixwell Avenue that had attracted some problem loitering a while back. As they approached Munson Street, the border between the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods, Brown pointed to a drug house the cops raided a while back. “Those guys have pretty much scattered” since then, Brown said.
Harp asked about what the cops find when raiding a house; she subsequently asked him for reality checks about some of the arguments she hears during debates about guns and drugs in the state legislature, where she has served since 1993 (and co-chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee). This year, in the week of the Newtown school massacre, she co-chaired the Mental Health Working Group of the legislature’s Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety.
She didn’t mention any of that to Brown during the ride Thursday. She mostly asked questions. Lots of questions.
And she kept asking to see some place where trouble brews. Finally Brown drove past Munson into Newhallville, where he and some of his officers find themselves spending a chunk of their time in order to help out the cops there. Newhallville’s CompStat maps, unlike Dixwell’s, are plastered each week with icons representing shootings, burglaries, and robberies.
They passed a rundown house on Division Street. “That’s a problem house” known for drugs and guns, Brown said. Members of the Slut Wave gang hang there.
Right around the corner, he said, members of the Playboys gang are staying. The two gangs have been beefing lately, and started shooting at each other.
He surprised Harp by informing her that Slut Wave originally operated out of the Hill. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why Slut Wave would move that close to the Playboys.”
That got Harp thinking: Why did they leave the Hill for Newhallville?
Around the corner, on Winchester Avenue, they drove by the Taurus Lounge, a never-ending source of neighborhood problems. Brown ticked off other gang locations nearby: Read Street, home to R2 and its offspring posses. Goodyear Street, home of GSB (Goodyear Street Boys).
Why so many gangs in Newhallville? Harp asked him. Why more gang violence than in other neighborhoods?
Brown talked about the closure years back of the Dixwell Community “Q” House, which has become a symbol for people calling for more youth programs in New Haven. He talked about the need for programs to help fathers play more of a role in their families. (Brown’s receiving a fatherhood award in Newhallville this Sunday)
They were talking about the “why Newhallville?” question as they drove down Lilac Street, past the site of a suspended, then restarted project to build a new home designed by Yale architecture students. (Read about that here.)
“It seems,” Harp observed, “like there are a lot of rundown vacant houses.” Might that have something to do with Newhallville’s disproportionate crime problem?
At a stop sign, Brown looked around. He immediately counted three vacant rundown houses just within a block.
“Yes, that’s an issue,” he said. “You know how landlords are. They’re out of state. You can’t even get in touch with them.”
That led to a discussion about cops working with City Hall’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI). Brown talked about how the agency responds promptly to his requests for help. “Last week they cleaned up a yard for me, an illegal repair shop. They were making all kinds of noise all times of day.”
That sounds like true community policing, Harp said.
Brown told her about a kid named “Mookie” who had been causing trouble. One day he saw Mookie back on the street hanging with other young people in a problem spot. “Hey Charles!” Brown called to him, using his real name. He added Mookie’s last name. He wanted Mookie to know that he knew all about his real identity. That scared Mookie off the corner, Brown said. It let him know the police were watching him.
That, too, sounds like true community policing, Harp said.
True community policing was the subject of the next stop on Harp’s itinerary.
That stop was a press conference outside the Edgewood Avenue police substation.
Several women joined her there, women who got to know Harp when she was an alderwoman from the Dwight neighborhood during the dawn of community policing. The women remembered the bad old days of the 1980s, the heyday of the KSI (the Kensington Street International) drug gang and the BDP (police Beat-Down Posse), both of which the cops dismantled in the 1990s. Florita Gillespie, Linda Townsend-Maier, and Christian bookstore owner Bea Dozier-Taylor credited Harp with helping them get a police-community management team started in the neighborhood and establishing a close working relationship with police. The woman have been active in neighborhood committees like that for the past two decades. They’ve helped bring a Stop & Shop and a Montessori School to the neighborhood. Dozier-Taylor’s A Walk In Truth bookstore replaced a longtime problem liquor store.
Harp said successful community policing hinges on the work of neighbors like these women developing trust in the cops. She praised Chief Esserman for bringing community policing back to town; she said she’d like to see it spark the same level of activism in less dense neighborhoods like Bishop Woods and upper Westville.
Then she told the group about her ride with Sgt. Brown. She said he convinced her the city needs a new fatherhood initiative. And cops who know Mookie’s real name.
“If you see Mookie on the corner—and you call him David Porter, or whatever,” Harp said, “that raises his level of concern. He knows you know who he is and where he lives.”
A Paramedic Idea
The press conference did not include any new proposals from Harp. The campaign is still working on a public safety platform to be unveiled in coming weeks. Thursday’s events were intended as part of the fact-gathering process.
That was the point of a visit to the basement of the Elks Club, where black and Latino firefighters waited to speak with her.
New Haven Fire Lt. Gary Tinney (pictured) of International Association of Black Professional Firefighters pitched a plan to conduct courses as part of regular high school for students to obtain certification as paramedics and emergency medical techs.
That gets them started on possible firefighting careers, he noted; people can apply for firefighting jobs once they turn 18. Paramedic certification also opens the doors to all sorts of jobs that pay $60,000 to $70,000 a year, he said.
“That’s our new factory,” Tinney said—meaning that with manufacturing jobs largely gone from New Haven, public-safety-related jobs offer a career path for New Haven kids.
He and other firefighters, who already spend time in New Haven schools urging kids to join the profession, told Harp they need a mayor’s help to open doors like these to kids who aren’t bound for college.
Harp called Tinney’s idea “cutting-edge.” She spoke of recently attending a Denver conference on working families, where she learned about similar models for certification programs that reach high-school kids and open doors to careers ranging from public safety to nursing. We’re losing too many kids in high school who don’t see viable paths to jobs, she and the firefighters agreed. She listened, she slipped in a passing reference to her experience, she offered support—in other words, she was campaigning for mayor.
Later, Tinney said the group will also invite other mayoral candidates to address them.
“She’s very empathetic,” Tinney said of Harp. “Especially since she’s gone to Denver and listened to these presentations. She’s going to care about our youth.
“I’m not saying the other candidates aren’t.”
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