A boy in Dixwell just turned 13. The older boys want him to hang out with them. They indulge in mischief. So Officer James Baker made the boy what he hopes is a better offer.
The kid’s name is Marquese. He lives in the Monterey Homes public-housing projects in Dixwell.
Officer Baker patrols the neighborhood. Has for nine of his 13 years on the force. He has gotten to know Marquese, a bit. Marquese has opened up to him, a bit.
Behind the wheel of his patrol car at the corner of Dixwell and Admiral Street Thursday, talking of Marquese, Baker thought of another 13-year-old in New Haven: Marquell “Quelly” Banks. Banks was known as a good kid. He was 13. He lived in Fair Haven. He spent his afternoons on Munson Street in Dixwell hanging out with 17- and 18-year-olds with criminal records. He drove around town with them as they smoked weed three weeks ago; the excursion ended with Quelly shot dead in the head, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of young black male homicide victims in New Haven.
Baker hadn’t started talking about Marquese or Quelly at the corner of Dixwell and Admiral. A reporter had asked him: When was the last time you arrested someone?
“That’s a good question,” Baker replied.
He knew he’d arrested someone recently.
“It was last week,” he said. He paused, searched his memory. “Two weeks ago.”
Just then a middle-aged woman with an umbrella crossed the street. Baker snapped to attention. He rolled down his window, called her over.
She approached his cruiser. She seemed wary.
Baker informed the woman that he’d seen her nephew last Friday night. The nephew had attended the first session of a weekly program Baker and some fellow cops have set up to keep teens from the Monterey complex busy playing sports, going to movies, receiving academic tutoring, talking about life in the neighborhood, and generally staying out of trouble.
The nephew is Marquese.
“He left early,” Baker told the aunt. He’d left before receiving a form the teens needed to take home for parents to sign, including information about food allergies, so they can keep attending the program.
Baker said he would bring the form by her home later.
She said she’d been in church last Friday night when Marquese attended the program. “He’s a good kid,” she said. But she’s been worried. He wants to hang out with the older kids who keep inviting him; he says he needs something to do. The older kids, she said, “get messing with the devil.”
“That’s why we’re doing” the program, Baker said. “We’re going to give him something else to do.”
“Don’t I Know You?”
As she walked away, Baker focused on trying to remember when he’d last made an.
He’d been standing in the area of Henry Street where a woman is converting an abandoned auto-repair shop into a boxing gym for neighborhood kids. (Baker donated to the cause.)
A man walked by. Baker recognized him.
“Don’t I know you?” Baker asked. They started talking. Baker asked when the man had last been arrested. “Did you take care of everything?” Baker asked, then said he would check just in case.
He knew the man was wanted on a warrant for a probation violation. He’d previously been convicted of narcotics and weapons charges. Baker made the arrest without hassle. He said he made sure to show his concern and offer some advice on straightening out his life “when you get this cleared up.”
You may have gotten the idea that arrests aren’t Baker’s top priority as a cop.
He knows he needs to make them. But he defines success as preventing the need for arrests.
That was the overriding philosophy in New Haven when community policing thrived here in the 1990s, when Baker left his private security job and became a city cop. As a new chief comes to town next week with a charge to revive community policing, Baker offers an approach to the job that shows how some veterans of that era have kept the philosophy alive.
“He never stopped practicing” it, observed his supervisor, top Dixwell cop Sgt. Donnie Harrison. Harrison called Baker “one of my best officers.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Baker, a 42-year-old dad with a pencil mustache who was known as “Shake ‘n’ Bake” when he played wide receiver and cornerback for the football team at Southern Connecticut State University and, before that, Linden (N.J.) High School. “We are here to do the job. Of course we’re going to [arrest people] if we know you do the crime. But we don’t do it for the single fact that we can.”
Baker started having second thoughts about automatic arrests for minor or under-investigated infractions when he served stints in the narcotics and domestic-violence units years back.
“I was making a lot of arrests when it wasn’t necessary,” he said. “You realize there are always two sides to a story. When you look at just arresting someone, you’re preventing their future. Someone’s going to hold it against them down the line.”
One time a woman came in to file a complaint that her husband had physically assaulted her, hurting her lip. She gave Baker one address where she thought he might find the man. He didn’t find the man there. Trained to take domestic violence seriously, he filed a warrant application for the man’s arrest, as was the norm.
He ran into the man soon after in detention. “I never did those things. We had a bad night; she wanted a more serious relationship,” the man told Baker. The man had been at work at the Omni Hotel the night she filed the complaint; he could have found him there and gotten his side. Baker also felt at the time that the woman was not forthcoming about key details when she was telling the story. In retrospect, he said, he wishes he had stamped the case “pending further investigation” and done more to find the man.
Nowadays, on the beat in Dixwell, he’ll often stop drivers for traffic violations. (Cardinal “broken windows” community policing rule: keep order in a neighborhood by starting with the smallest infractions.) But if the driver lives in the neighborhood, he’ll first issue a warning ticket rather than a summons. He’ll talk to the driver about the need to keep the neighborhood safe. That often has more impact, he claimed; that $100-plus fine still hangs over the driver’s head if he runs another stop sign.
This past year the black police officers’ group, the New Haven Guardians, named Baker the chapter president. With his colleagues he handed out bags of candy at a pre-Halloween party. They’ll be distributing food bags to the needy on Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas. The new weekly Friday night for the teens is the next step in a continuing mission to make engaging kids and families part of the role of men and women in blue. And getting to know their families.
“It’s Going To Be OK”
Baker and the Guardians have been doing the holiday events for years, out of the Monterey community center at Ashmun Street. It was there that he came to recognize Marquese’s aunt. “She was always there” with her sisters’ kids to pick up turkeys.
She was volunteering at the polls at Wexler-Grant School on primary election night in September. She collapsed; Baker was on the scene as medics came to help her. Marquese was there too.
Baker noticed Marquese crying. He was scared. As the medics revived the woman, Baker hung with Marquese. “I was telling him it was going to be OK.”
That’s how he found out that Marquese lives with his aunt.
That’s also how Baker slowly started to get know Marquese.
He saw Marquese again last Friday at the first night of the new program. He was one of 20 kids Monterey kids (half boys, half girls) between 7 and 14 years old who showed up after seeing a flyer about the program distributed at the Halloween event.
Marquese hung back, wary. Other kids volunteered information about themselves during a round of group introductions. His turn came last. He didn’t want to speak.
“At least say your name and your favorite color,” Baker urged him.
On Thursday, Baker dropped in at the Guardians office to confer with a housing authority employee, Valerie McEachern (at left in photo), who’s helping with the Friday night program. They have a list of the 20 kids’ names and addresses and phone numbers. McEachern said she’d follow up with parents to get consent forms and remind people about the next session (a week from this Friday).
Baker is hoping to see Marquese there.
“It’s a scary thing. You think about the last kid [killed]—he was 13, hanging out with older kids,” Baker reflected.
“We can lock [young people] up every day,” he said. “Or if we can get to these kids early.” Then, maybe, the police won’t need to lock them up. Maybe the kids will make it to adulthood.
The New Haven Guardians are hosting a Toys for Kids drive on Friday, Dec. 9 from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Greek Olive. Details here.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski