Tajiks Taste Policing, New Haven Style

“Hi, hon!” a man called out to Lt. Holly Wasilewski after she pulled her cruiser into the Church Street South housing projects, home to three homicides last year.

It’s not the kind of greeting cops would have received on a similar errand in Tajikistan.

Two guests were riding along in Wasilewski’s cruiser when they witnessed the greeting. They were in town from Tajikistan, where they have been working to humanize a militia-style national police force.

The Church Street South greeting was offered by a maintenance man at the housing project, one of countless people with whom Lt. Wasilewski, a top neighborhood cop based in the Hill, has forged relationships during her 18 years on the force.

Firdavs Odinaev (at right in photo), sitting in the passenger seat of Wasilewski’s patrol car, said he hopes to bring a quest for that kind of familiarity and easy communication back to the central Asian nation’s police force.

Odinaev was part of a group of about a dozen people from Tajikistan who spent Friday afternoon with top New Haven cops.

The group was in town part of a trip organized by the U.S. Department of State, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Emergence Group consulting agency as part of an effort to reform policing in Tajikistan. The country is looking to police departments like New Haven’s for models of community-based policing.

Since taking over the New Haven police department a year ago, Chief Dean Esserman has been reinstituting community policing in the city. He has set up walking beats in all city neighborhoods and reoriented the department toward creating relationships with neighbors, building trust, fostering cooperation—all new concepts to Tajik policing.

“What they had was a Soviet militia concept,” said Dorin Fazli, a Moldovan OSCE staffer stationed in Tajikistan. Police in Tajikistan are a national force that does not serve the community, but the government, Fazli said. Tajik police are seen as a “force and power of the government.”

That is not the case in the United States, Esserman (at center in photo) said during a meeting with the Tajik delegation in a third-floor conference room at police department headquarters. He addressed a group comprising U.S. embassy employees, OSCE staff, members of Tajik non-governmental organizations, a Tajik schoolteacher, and three Tajik cops.

The group had been in country for several days, visiting police in New Bedford and Cambridge, Mass. The group arrived in New Haven because of a connection between Esserman and a program manager for the Emergence Group, a former police chief in New Bedford.

It’s Different Here

“I have traveled to many countries around the world, and I’ve learned that we don’t understand policing around the world” and vice versa, Esserman told the group through a translator. “Ours seems disorganized and confusing and yours seems organized and clear.”

American policing was shaped by the fact that it existed in the U.S. before the nation did, said Esserman. The country does not have a national police force, but thousands of small and large police departments.

“In many ways we are disorganized. And with information and crime-fighting, that can be a problem. But as in all things, our weakness is our strength,” Esserman said. “We are very connected to our communities. We do not work for a central national government. We do not work for a state government. We work for our local community, and that is a very different frame of reference than most of the world.”

The concept of “community policing” is relatively new, Esserman said. Even 25 years ago, you would have seen one police headquarters centrally controlling all officers, he said. “Today, the police department is decentralized into the neighborhoods.”

Esserman described the form of the department: 10 districts, each with a commander in charge of 20 to 30 officers who work only in that neighborhood.

“We want them to build relationships,” Esserman said. “People don’t talk to the uniform or the badge. They talk to the person in the uniform or wearing that badge.”

Members of the Tajikistan group peppered Esserman, assistant chiefs, and several sergeants and lieutenants with questions.

How many women are in the department?

About 15 percent of cops are women, said Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova (pictured). And women have run the entire department in the past, he said, referring to Stephanie Redding’s term as acting chief of police.

Female cops are almost unheard of in Tajikistan, Fazli said later.

Does New Haven have areas of town that are dangerous to police? asked Odinaev, who wore a lapel pin in the shape of golden handcuffs.

Most crime takes place in “the corridor,” said Casanova, referring to an area in the center of the city, running north-south through the Hill, Dixwell, and Newhallville, roughly within blocks of Orchard Street.

Are there different laws and jails for juveniles? asked a Tajik cop.

There are, said Assistant Chief Archie Generoso. And most crime in the city is committed by people under the age of 25, he said.

Tamara Duffy-Janser, a State Department employee working on community policing in Tajikistan, said half of the country’s population is under the age of 25. With high unemployment and poor education, young people are vulnerable to drug and human trafficking and “radicalization,” often leading to suicide attempts, she said.

The group heard from several cops about ways to engage young people—through summer camps, seasonal events and parties, and having officers in the schools. The common theme was building relationships, establishing continuity and connection between cops and kids.

“People Call Us”

At 3:30 p.m. the Tajik delegation split up and headed out for ride-alongs with several district commanders. Odinaev and Duffy-Janser ended up in Lt. Wasilewski’s cruiser, which she pointed toward the nearby Church Street South housing project.

“They call it the ‘Concrete Jungle,’” she said. The sprawling complex has 301 units and takes up four to five city blocks.

She pulled into the project. “You’ll see people start to walk off,” she said. Some people did, but others said hi.

“I’m out here all the time,” Wasilewski said. She explained that she worked extra-duty jobs in Church Street South for 11 years, and got to know the ins and outs of the project and its secluded courtyards where people can buy drugs. And she got to know the people.

“Hi, hon!” said a man walking by.

“Hi, Lennox,” said Wasilewski.

She pulled the car back out onto Union Avenue and headed into the Hill. The neighborhood is mostly residential, she explained, driving down Howard Avenue. As she pulled the cruiser into City Point, Wasilewski explained how divided the city can be, with people in City Point complaining about car break-ins while people in the Hill worry about shootings.

Stopping by her substation, Wasilewski pointed out the spot where she plants flowers in the spring and explained that she hands out coats every year when it gets cold. She and the city’s traffic chief also ran a bed-linen drive for Hill kids.

Wasilewski put the brakes on and rolled down the window outside a store near the corner of Redfield Street and Congress Avenue, which has been a hot spot for drug dealing, she said.

“What’s up?” Wasilewski said to two men standing outside the store. The subtext: Move along, don’t loiter.

The men said they were waiting for someone inside the store; Wasilewski rolled on. She said she recognized at least one of the guys from the neighborhood—another indication of community familiarity.

Policing here is totally different, said Odinaev as Wasilewski headed back to headquarters.

“I’m really impressed by the philosophy the chief has,” said Duffy-Janser (pictured).

“For me, it’s natural,” said Wasilewski. She said her policing emphasis has always been on building relationships. That doesn’t mean she gets along with everyone in the neighborhood, she said. “I’m very fair. But I like my district quiet.”

The main problem in Tajikistan policing is that “police report to the government and not to the people,” Odinaev said. There is “no trust to the police from the community side.”

“How often do senior staff report to the community?” Odinaev asked after Wasilewski parked her cruiser back in the parking garage below police headquarters. She said she reports once a month at Community Management Team meetings. She stays in regular communication with the local aldermen. And everyone has her cell phone number, she said. “They’re free to call me anytime.”

The city also uses SeeClickFix to track neighborhood complaints, Wasilewski said. “But most people call us.”

Back upstairs outside the chief’s office, Odinaev reflected on the differences between New Haven and Tajikistan. The community has no access to the police in Tajikistan, he said. If people see a crime there, they’re often afraid to even report it.

“One of my colleagues lost her phone” and went to the police station to ask for help, but she became so intimidated by the police that she left without making a report, Odinaev said.

The international exchange wrapped up Friday with handshakes and group photos of smiling cops and visiting Tajiks. The group rode down the elevator to begin the long journey back to central Asia on Saturday, and the task of reforming their police.


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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on November 19, 2012  10:19am

Cool.  Thanks for reporting this.  It’s fascinating to realize that the entire concept of bottom-up policing is particularly American.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on November 19, 2012  10:30am

It’s good to see and hear from Lt. Wasilewski again, and the NHPD is fortunate that she chose to join their department, and stay. The shame is her advancement has been stymied, and the current political structure seems to not see the need to have her in a higher, more responsible postition. She has the experience, and human touch needed to lead.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 19, 2012  11:18am

One Thing I fully agreed; Community policing really works, the problem is that there is a lot of talking and very little actions. Events that may be worthy for the police participate to engage people are, community clean ups, block parties, specially public school and libraries events. THAT ARE ORGANIZED FROM THE COMMUNITY. no from officials in office or organizations.

The schools parents have so much to shared, situations they see when walking with their kids and they have to live with it everyday until they find the courage to speak up.  The problems is they don’t feel secure speaking up in public or in the community meetings. People tend to speaks more freely in areas where see people they know and worked together.

One quick example, last Saturday we have a community/School clean up in Fair Haven. These school Parents have already very valuable points about those negative issues that are affecting their lives every single day. WE invite the police and until now we did not heard from them yes or not coming. Would be very nice if some one from the police Department contact them to heard them why they diced to STEP OUT OF THEIR SCHOOL AND BE ACTIVE. Education (we all know) doesn’t start early in the morning in the class rooms, Starts at home, community (environment) and classrooms.

posted by: FrontStreet on November 20, 2012  8:26am

reality check.  I lived for 4 years in central asia, visited Tajikistan several times, worked with activists for civi society in Dushanbe (capitol city) and Khojand (main northern city).

Tajik police force one of the most corrupt in the region.  Corruption beyond anything you might imagine.  But I’m sure the tajiks enjoyed riding around New Haven.