On March 31st, 2016, an issue was opened on the web-based platform for reporting non-emergency issues in New Haven, SeeClickFix, in response to a point made on a WNHH Radio show by Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, about the City’s community policing district substations looking “more like fortresses than something inviting“. Within a couple of weeks, the issue garnered over 20 comments and nearly as many supporting votes to address the perception that the buildings are uninviting to the public. As the discussion in the comments section showed, however, there is disagreement between the police, residents, and the buildings’ architect as to the success of the design for New Haven’s substations of which there are seven identically-designed buildings located throughout the City, in addition to three others using existing facilities.
After describing the substations as “like a fortress” and “brutalist structures”, Thomas Burwell called for replacing “the translucent windows so people can look in and out”. Hill Resident countered that “unless the substations are manned 24/7 [the buildings should not have] open windows and friendlier facades [since] it would be an invitation to vandalism of the worst kind” and went on to further defend the design for prioritizing privacy. On the other hand, razzie suggests that “if one of the main uses for the substations is as a convenient meeting space for neighborhood groups etc., then the spaces need to become more inviting and appropriate to that function.” The substations’ architect, Robert Roscow, describes the substations as “outposts” and maintains that the buildings “won a design award and have been very successful.” Officer David Hartman, who used the substations to write reports, bemoaned the lack of quality lighting within the structures. This wide variety of opinion represents just a few of the ideas from one on-line comment section.
To evaluate the design of New Haven’s community policing district substations for today’s requirements, one must look at the factors that influenced their initial design, how well the buildings have functioned for their intended purposes, and the way in which our policing needs may have changed over the last 20 years.
A Brief History of Policing in New Haven
New Haven, having been protected by a select group in one form or another since the founding of the Colony in 1638, has a long and storied history of policing. Early in the Colony’s history, the streets of the Nine Squares were patrolled and observed nightly from March until October by rotating shifts of volunteer watchmen. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the night watch was primarily concerned with maintaining order along New Haven’s sleepy streets by keeping an eye out for strangers. With a residential population of around 5,000 people, New Haven’s seasonal night patrols managed to adequately serve the policing needs of the small agrarian and maritime village into the 19th century.
By 1820, however, as artisan crafts and trading activities around the port flourished, New Haven’s population began steadily increasing not only within the Nine Squares, but in new communities surrounding. Marshals, constables, tythingmen, and impounders were used to aid the night watch, which was made year-round, in maintaining order in the town of over 7,000 residents and growing. In this period of New Haven’s history, early policing efforts were still focused on reinforcing social norms and preventing disorder. These community service positions, held by untrained residents, were largely informal until the Civil War when the New Haven Police Department was established.
While New Haven was a more or less tight knit homogeneous Yankee community well into the 19th Century save small groups of free blacks and Irish laborers, it wasn’t until late in the century that the combined processes of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization noticeably transformed the city into a cosmopolitan metropolis. By the 1870s, new neighborhoods were quickly developing around a burgeoning Downtown connecting to nearby industrial and seafaring villages – creating a large, seamless urban fabric. Fixed-path transit in the form of street cars extended from the old maritime center to industrial and residential areas within the city and to peripheral small towns and recreation attractions beyond.
Increasingly large manufacturing operations and their auxiliary industrial, service, and retail jobs attracted waves of European immigrants by the tens of thousands to New Haven each decade of the 19th Century after 1830. For the most part, police work at this time involved housing homeless people overnight, finding truant children, and arresting drunks though the job was becoming less community service-oriented by the late 19th century. To carrying out this work in a rapidly growing city, the police department also grew from a total of 90 personnel in 1882, to 146 patrolmen in 1910, then again to 208 by 1916. Furthermore, to supplement the municipal headquarters, neighborhoods were organized into policing precincts where individual officers were responsible for catering their patrols to what they determined as the needs of their precinct.
649 Howard Avenue, for instance, was built in 1891 as the police building for the Third Precinct, which covered the Hill neighborhood. Operated as a police building until 1955, 649 Howard Avenue is still owned by the City of New Haven and was most recently used as the headquarters for the now-defunct Hill Development Corporation. Designed by prominent local architects David R. Brown and Ferdinand Von Beren, the building is described in the 1985 National Register Historic District application form for Howard Avenue as:
“One of the most notable structures found in the district[.] Lavishly embellished with corbelling, pressed-brick window and doorway arches as well as other prominent features such as a central facade barbican, this building is by far the most architecturally significant and best-preserved surviving example of the type of small precinct headquarters erected for the city’s police department in outlying neighborhoods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Another surviving example of these small Police Precinct buildings is 138 Dixwell Avenue, also designed by Brown & Von Beren and built between 1905-06. According to research conducted by Colin Caplan for the book A Guide to Historic New Haven, 138 Dixwell Avenue served as the Fourth Precinct’s police station until 1942 when it was sold and converted to a community center. Now owned by the Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation, the building is used as a church for St. Martin de Porres. Despite alterations made to the building in 1948, including a rear wing addition and interior remodeling, 138 Dixwell Avenue has managed to retain some of its original Renaissance Revival-style design.
Precinct police stations were one of many institutions, along with libraries, post offices, firehouses, and community centers, rooted in New Haven’s neighborhoods that contributed to strong neighborhood identities, civic pride, and social cohesion in the otherwise quite chaotic and increasingly large industrial city of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The dense fabric of retail shops, bustling sidewalks, and close living quarters of this era also helped to keep crime low by providing an informal policing presence. Widespread economic opportunity and a lack of incident reporting especially by immigrant communities also likely factor into low crime statistics during this period.
While the precinct buildings foster tight knit communities within the larger city where residents knew their neighborhood police officer, having such a locally-connected police department also led to some undesirable consequences. In the early 20th century throughout America, corruption was rampant within many police departments, including New Haven’s, which essentially acted as a political arm of municipal leaders. Mayor Rice’s administration had hired more than half of New Haven’s police officers in 1916. According to a 2011 Yale Law School paper, which has provided much of the information so far on New Haven’s police history, some cities, like Philadelphia, even prohibited police officers from living in the same neighborhood that they patrolled.
To address the issue of corruption, New Haven’s police force was reformed through professionalization, autonomy from the municipal government, and military training beginning around the First World War. Militarization of the police department prompted a change within policing procedure and philosophy – police became increasingly separate from the communities they paroled, even less community-service oriented, and more like foreign occupying armies in neighborhoods fighting a war on crime. Stricter department-wide policies were also enacted, and transportation and communications technologies advanced to enable better coordination within the department and in mobilizing to respond to issues throughout the city.
Also beginning in the 1920s, new residential construction increasingly occurred outside of New Haven’s borders in quickly growing suburban towns. With this new development, New Haven began losing a steady stream of middle and upper class residents to neighboring towns and as immigration slowed, the city’s population first plateaued, then went into a continuous decline after 1930. These changes, along with traffic congestion, business and civic erosion, and general urban decline, set New Haven on a course that ultimately resulted in a large scale transformation of the City in the mid-20th century. Despite many compounding issues facing the city at this time, including several police precinct stations coming into disuse, crime remained relatively low through this era.
While urban highway, and redevelopment and renewal projects replaced neighborhoods with limited-access expressways, high-rise towers, and parking garages in the 1950s and 60s, New Haven’s Police Department was centralizing its para-military operations thanks in part to patrol cars and the rerouting of all emergency calls through 911. Rather than policing efforts concentrated on walking beats to provide preventative neighborhood social services around precinct buildings, police paroled the city in squad cars and responded to emergency calls. By 1950, a police academy facility was built at 710 Sherman Parkway to train new officers, along with a nearby animal shelter at 81 Fournier Street, which was staffed with a police officer.
Several important Civil Rights Supreme Court decisions – made in response to rampant nationwide police brutality and harassment in minority communities – led to stricter policing protocols that vastly limited the amount of discretion police could legally use. Despite the role of policing being reduced to little more than law enforcement enabled only by probable cause, however, targeting and selective enforcement of minority communities persisted. Furthermore, the police would again be used as an arm of New Haven’s Mayor under Frank Logue when the police were ordered to close a factory while a local union went on strike. Only by court-order did officers later re-open the plant and help escort new workers into the factory amid union protests, which highlights the limited power of local government and increased power of courts to influence policing procedure. Representing these new mandated policing practices and the department’s view of the surrounding city was the construction of the Department of Police Service building located on Union Avenue in the Church Street Redevelopment Area in 1973.
Designed by Douglas Orr, deCossy, Winder and Associates, venerable New Haven historian Elizabeth Mills Brown praised the Police Building for its careful site planning on a difficult, irregular lot, but noted that “some have found it menacing with its narrow window slits”. Large expanses of opaque walls rendered in rough-faced concrete block provide fortification from the surrounding City – an appropriate facilitator for administering the War on Crime. Declining economic opportunity, loss of neighborhood social structures, warehousing of the poor in concentrated areas, and the disproportionate impact of law enforcement and urban renewal projects on minority communities provides the backdrop for what would eventually give rise to New Haven’s Community Policing District Substations.
Setting the Stage for Community Policing
By 1980 New Haven had lost nearly a quarter of its 1930 peak population of 162,000 residents, the annual violent and property crime rate was on an unrelenting ascent, and police were far removed from the communities they were meant to serve. And this was before the sale of cocaine by violent drug gangs became prevalent in the city. By the time John C. Daniels (1936-2015), New Haven’s first black mayor, took office in 1990, blocks in the city’s most economically ravaged neighborhoods were occupied by groups of well-armed drug dealers serving a steady streams of urban and suburban clientele. Streets littered with spent bullet casings from daily gunfire, overlooked by vacant industrial facilities, and populated by hundreds of abandoned structures prone to copper mining, arson, and squatting provided the setting for a city that saw three youths shot on the steps of the New Haven Superior Courthouse Downtown in 1989, a six year old school bus rider shot in the head in 1992, and a high school student shot two years later at Wilbur Cross High School.
Having run against the Democratic town machine, Mayor Daniels found a new chief for the New Haven Police Department in Nick Pastore, a former cop with the NHPD tasked with putting an end to persecutory law enforcement by bringing Community Policing to the Elm City. The policing style of Chief Pastore’s predecessor, William F. Farrell, was informed by reform-era efforts to create a highly militarized, isolated, and reactive police force that could rapidly respond to emergency calls, target law enforcement in high crime areas, and make arrests. In the late 1980s, groups of officers, known as the “Beat Down Posse”, were known to drive around the City’s neighborhoods looking for suspected drug dealers to assault, harass, and detain. With few arrests leading to long-term prison sentences, Chief Farrell’s police department had little impact on the rising tide of crime in New Haven.
In the years around 1980 the New Haven Police Department was at an all-time high in budget and number of sworn officers – 491 of them in fiscal 1980, with a total payroll of 564 employees. That comes out to about 3.8 sworn officers per 1,000 in population (as against about 2.7 in the calmer 1950s)[.] One hundred and twenty officers might, at the outside, be found in cruisers or walking beats at any given moment[.] If the city had 50,000 residential units, along with perhaps 10,000 buildings devoted to commerce, production, and services, spread across 1,200 city blocks, then each officer would be potentially accountable for the goings-on at something like six hundred locations. Even with the quasi-military approach of the period – radio-dispatched cruisers – this is thin coverage. Moreover, such police work was largely reactive, the standard measure of coverage being response time – the minutes elapsed between a call for help and the arrival of the first cop. For most purposes, five to ten minutes was considered desirable.
This reactive police coverage, while utterly essential, was not and had never been the principal mechanism for crime prevention. The work of preventing crime is largely that of civil society – the connectedness of neighborhoods, the teachings of countless unheralded leaders at street level, the casual surveillance of street-corner shopkeepers, and the sense of trust and obligation we associate with high levels of social capital.” -Doug Rae. City pp. 388-389
Upon his hiring in 1990, Chief Pastore ushered in a new era of policing that called back to the community service roots of the night watch, constables, and the precinct-based walking beats of the initial New Haven Police Department. In the early 1990s, the city was divided up into eight community policing districts to facilitate neighborhood patrols, get officers familiar with their beats, and prioritize crime prevention efforts. Neighbors were encouraged to form block watches and attend monthly Management Team meetings with officers and local business owners for updates on neighborhood issues. Police were given sensitivity training and encouraged to avoid acting like an occupying army by interacting with residents, earning the community’s trust, and developing sources from which to build impactful cases. A Citizen Review Panel was also created to provide some oversight of the police department. The transition was difficult for many officers, some of whom never fully committed to the ideals of community policing, as evidenced by continued officer misconduct during investigations including a 1993 homicide that went on to result in arrests, a trial, and later a wrongful conviction. Moreover, one weekend in 1991 when several officers called out sick to protest disciplinary actions, three people were killed and seven injured by gunfire in the city.
Having lost his initial run for election in 1989, John DeStefano finally succeeded in becoming mayor in 1994 when John Daniels decided not to run for re-election. DeStefano kept Pastore as chief of the police department and expanded the number of community policing districts by two for a total of ten, including Westville, Newhallville, Dixwell, Dwight/Chapel , Hill North, Hill South, Fair Haven, East Shore, Downtown, and Beaver Hills. Thanks to provisions in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that supported community policing efforts through the funding of new local police officers and a state grant program, New Haven was able to create and populate policing substations in each of its ten districts; seven were in newly constructed buildings with identical designs while three were housed in pre-existing structures.
The Design and Location of New Haven’s Police Substations
In keeping with the limitations imposed by the kind of modest budget that one might expect a publicly-financed project to have, New Haven’s seven new Community Policing District substations had identical designs. In addition to relating with the materiality of the police department headquarters building, concrete masonry units also reflect the project’s budget. Expansive exterior walls rendered mostly in a light beige color with intermittent rows of grey blocks bring a visual softness and warmth, particularly in sunlight, to what is otherwise often a hard, cold material for passersby, while simultaneously providing a sense of security, protection, and privacy for building users.
The red metal seam pitched roofs, penetrated by chimney-like forms, call attention to the buildings while relating them to their residential surroundings. Green copper metal gutters and downspouts adds to the buildings’ simple color pallet and domestic character. Large glass block windows maintain that sense of privacy by further obscuring views inside the substations, but also allow natural light to penetrate through the enclosure to the interiors of the buildings. The program of the substations offer bathrooms, a wing with an office for police personnel to write reports, and a wing holding a community meeting room. Organized in an L-shape, the police buildings provide a covered front porch space that face the street and opens up to surrounding communities.
The design of the Community Policing District Substations – through their materiality, opaqueness, and form – attempt to communicate with the public that these buildings are simultaneously associated with police work, serve a civic function, and are meant for community use. The buildings seem quite effective at maintaining privacy, security, and protection for those inside the facilities, but perhaps due to the conflicting needs of privacy and openness, the substations are less successful at encouraging access by residents. For sure, one important accomplishment of the Community Policing District Substations has been their location within the most troubled neighborhoods of New Haven, which has greatly increased the presence of police where they are needed most.
The Westville Substation, built on the site of a City-owned day care center next to a public school that the Mayor’s son happened to attend, is located at 329 Valley Street in the West Hills section. While placing the structure in the heart of the Westville Village near the post office, firehouse, and library would have added to the neighborhood’s civic ensemble, the northern sections of Westville required greater access to policing services in 1995. Designated as the Wild Wild West by local drug dealing crews of that generation, West Hills and West Rock contained nearly 1,000 public housing units in six developments through which large quantities of cocaine were trafficked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These projects, with nicknames like 2-5, Brownsville, and the Terrordome, were the sites of rampant crime that terrorized tenants and nearby homeowners. Centrally located within the sprawling district, the Valley Street substation serves as a launching pad for patrol cars to travel between various parts of Westville.
The police substation at 596 Winchester Avenue serves another large area encompassing Newhallville, the former Winchester Repeating Arms factory complex, Whitney-Orange, Goatville, SoHu, Upper State Street, Jocelyn Square, and Cedar Hill. While close to the center of the district, the substation remains far from the westernmost communities its meant to serve – often leaving some neighborhoods with a weak police presence. Standing among abandoned, neglected rental properties, and vacant storefronts along one of Newhallville’s most distressed streets, the substation is conveniently placed to serve an area greatly in need. By 1990, the area east of Beaver Ponds Park and west of Prospect Hill was populated by informal drug gangs with names like the ‘Ville, Newhallville Dogs, Mudhole, the Carter, and Read Street Posse that flourished among the de-industrial remains of the working class neighborhood.
Geographically, the Dixwell Community Policing District is the smallest in the city, but at the time of its creation it covered one of New Haven’s most prominent drug gangs of the era. The Tribe, based out of the Elm Haven low-rises (442 units built 1939) and high-rises (368 units built 1955), the oldest and largest public housing project in the city, controlled a vast area between Science Hill, Yale’s Broadway Campus, Hillhouse High School, Goffe Street, and Science Park. Located at 26 Charles Street, the substation sits between Orchard Street, a major north-south route connecting Newhallville to the upper Hill, and the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare of Dixwell Avenue. The police building is also near schools, the Dixwell Shopping Plaza and its parking lot used as a popular neighborhood gathering spot, churches, housing like the Florence Virtue Cooperative, and the Elm Haven projects.
From the substation at 130 Edgewood Avenue, located on part of the former Dwight School property, officers assigned to the Dwight/Chapel Community Policing District are responsible for patrolling the West Village and West River neighborhoods. Populated by once stately mansions turned offices, subdivided apartment houses, elaborately ornamented apartment buildings, and only one small public housing development, Waverly Townhouses, the streets of this district were also home to the infamous Kensington Street International gang.
The Hill North substation is located at 90 Hallock Street near the corner of Congress Avenue – the main commercial thoroughfare for the neighborhood. The district covers a series of blocks west of Yale-New Haven Hospital, and the medical campus itself. In the early 1990s, this section of the city was the turf of groups like the Arch Street Gang, and the Hill Brothers whose insignia “HBO” (Hill Brothers Only) could be seen scrawled in graffiti throughout the neighborhood.
Located at 410 Howard Avenue, the Hill South substation stands along another major thoroughfare of the neighborhood. Patrols cover Washington Avenue, the Boulevard, Kimberly Square, City Point, Trowbridge Square, Union Station, along with Church Street South Housing, which was home to the violent Jungle Boys drug gang at the time.
The Fair Haven substation at 296 Blatchley Avenue covers another large district spanning from the Mill River industrial park to the Quinnipiac River. Located in the center of the neighborhood on the city-owned property of the Columbus School, officers in this district are responsible for a large area formerly saturated with a variety of groups with local roots like the Exchange Street Posse, nationwide networks like the Latin Kings, and international connections to Colombia. The district also once included two of the oldest and largest public housing developments, 318-unit Farnam Courts on Grand Avenue and 244-unit Quinnipiac Terrace on Front Street, which were both opened in 1941. The Ghetto Boys and Island Brothers, named after the projects they called home in the late 1980s, ran successful drug markets out of the hallways and apartments of their respective complexes that kept police busy during that time.
Rather than constructing a new building for the East Shore policing building, officers use an existing space in part of the New Haven Fire Department’s Woodward Fire Station complex located at 826 Woodward Avenue. Patrols cover the entire eastern shore of the Quinnipiac River along the North Haven and East Haven borders. Conveniently located near entrance and exit ramps to I-91 and along the district’s major north-south routes of Quinnipiac and Townsend Avenues, officers need all the help they can get covering the district, which includes the 142-unit Eastview Terrace public housing project (built in 1960), previously known as the Circle – named for the one-way semicircular street that traversed the complex.
Located in another pre-existing building, the Downtown Community Police District substation at 817 Grand Avenue sat at the very edge of its district, which covers Downtown, Yale’s central campus, the Green and Wooster Square. The substation was, however, very close to the “G” or Farnam Courts where the Ghetto Boys conducted business.
Officers patrolling the Beaver Hills district in the 1990s covered an area that includes Southern Connecticut State University, Edgewood, and parts of the Dixwell neighborhood from the substation at 386 Whalley Avenue. The building, located on the city’s most traveled surface street, placed police officers along a major drug trafficking corridor containing turf of the Tribe, KSI, and other groups in the area.
Taking (Un)Due Credit
Throughout the 1990s, crime – both violent and property – dropped steadily from its record high rates around 1990. To be sure, between 1989 and 1991 there were 1,063 non-fatal shootings and 99 homicides in New Haven, which averages out to 387.3 incidents per year or more than one per day over that three year period. In contrast, the period between 2002 and 2004 recorded the same number of homicides, 34, as in the year 1994 alone. Over the same period in the early 2000s, non-fatal shootings – averaging 100 per year – also represented a drop by more than two-thirds as compared to the same statistics for 1989-1991. New Haven’s crime drop, however, cannot be seen solely through its community policing efforts. Nor can policing alone be blamed for a wave of violent crime that emerged towards the end of the new millennium’s first decade.
In 2000, New Haven’s population of 123,000 was the lowest it had been since the early 1900s. While the 1994 Crime Bill provided funding to hire more local police officers, it also led to mass incarceration with stricter sentencing as the primary tool for crime prevention rather than access to social services, economic opportunity, and rehabilitation. Though the Crime Bill proved helpful to police departments focused on community policing tactics like New Haven, some provisions in the bill were harmful in the hands of departments pursuing reform-era law enforcement tactics. New Haven, during this period, was also riding a wave of crime reduction experienced nationwide by nearly all cities, including those not actively engaged in community policing initiatives.
Drug dealing also changed as technology became more widely available. Rather than standing on street corners or front porches to serve anonymous passersby on foot and in cars who could potentially be undercover police officers, by the 2000s dealers could make sales privately only with people known to them through cell phones. The distribution of drugs, while centered in cities in the early 90s, migrated outwards to surrounding communities further diminishing the demand for dealing on New Haven’s streets.
The redevelopment of several public housing projects under the Hope VI program transformed many of New Haven’s most troubled housing developments throughout the 2000s. Initially conceived as work-force housing for returning servicemen and factory workers in the 1940s and 50s, public housing initially provided quality new housing for families to temporarily stay until their incomes grew enough to move into private houses. By the 1960s, however, as urban economies were ravaged by manufacturing migration to suburban towns, the American south, and abroad, or just closing operations, public housing transitioned into permanent warehousing for the poor. At the same time, the Federal government, under the encouragement of private real estate investors, began defunding public housing in favor of programs that subsidize private market low-income housing such as Section 8 from 1974, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit from 1986. The issues associated with physical isolation, social segregation, and high density living quarters were exacerbated by consistent, widespread mismanagement on the part of the Housing Authority of New Haven well into the 1990s. The HOPE VI initiative offered Federal funding through HUD to rebuild public housing complexes into publicly-subsidized and privately-managed mixed-income developments designed to match the surrounding vernacular architecture.
Dixwell’s Elm Haven was HANH’s first redevelopment project. Demolition work on the six high-rise buildings, which varied from eight to ten stories, began in 1990 and resulted in a court case where a group of former tenants sued the Housing Authority. The court’s decision required HANH to find 183 scattered site dwelling units in non-impacted neighborhoods – a process that took over 15 years to complete. Throughout the 1990s, the rest of the low-rise complex was demolished thanks to a 1993 HOPE VI grant and eventually rebuilt by 2003 as Monterey Place, a smaller and privately-managed development with a mixture of owner-occupied, family rental, and elderly housing units in free-standing houses, walk-up flats, and a corridor building for a total of 414-units.
In the 1990s, Fair Haven’s Farnam Courts and Quinnipiac Terrace/Riverview went through extensive renovations that added pitched roofs and private entryways to cover flat roof construction and communal hallways. Despite these investments, Quinnipiac Terrace was rebuilt with a HOPE VI grant in 2006 into a mixed-income community. Unlike other redevelopment projects, East Shore’s Eastview Terrace was only partially demolished with several existing buildings being renovated and joined by newly constructed townhouses in 2009. Likewise, West Hills’s McConaughy Terrace, built in 1948, received new pitched roofs, window shutters, and entry hoods in 2011 rather than being demolished. Most recently, two of West Rock’s most troubled complexes, Brookside and Rockview, have started a massive redevelopment program, along with Ribicoff Cottages, into a mix of owner-occupied, family, elderly, and disabled housing units that have already contributed to dramatic improvements for the neighborhood.
For the first time in decades, the New Haven’s population has increased as Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital along with its associated biomedical industry have grown – contributing towards New Haven once again leading the region in job growth. Meanwhile, the rental market has boomed, attracting young professionals, recent college graduates, and empty nesters to New Haven with cultural amenities, nightlife, and dynamic neighborhoods. Another major demographic fueling population growth are immigrants, including from those looking to secure their economic footing as well as leaders in their academic and research fields. Most recent Census estimates place the City’s population over 130,000 making it the fastest growing City among its peer group in the Northeast over the last 15 years.
A formerly apathetic force in the City, Yale University has taken a larger role in guiding New Haven’s development in the last two decades. As the largest property owner in the City, the University has transformed Chapel Street and Broadway by attracting anchor retailers mixed with small boutique stores to serve the Yale community and regional shoppers. Similar streetscape and façade improvements, however, may have been possible through the creation of a Special Services District rather than effectively turning those commercial areas into hybrid urban-outdoor malls. The Yale Homebuyer program, while not a cure-all for New Haven’s woes, has helped attract and retain Yale employees in the city’s neighborhoods. The former Winchester Repeating Arms Company campus has been reborn – with mixed-results – as a joint venture between the City and Yale as Science Park in order to incubate start-up companies.
Yale’s own Police Department, established in 1894, has been another important factor in New Haven’s policing efforts. Covering a large area in the center of the city around the New Haven Green, and Dwight and Dixwell neighborhoods, the Yale PD has 87 sworn police officers with full powers of law enforcement and arrest granted by the State. The Department’s new headquarters is located at 101 Ashmun Street in the Dixwell neighborhood in the Rose Center – a building that doubles as a community learning center. The Center’s light, airy facades rendered in glass and metal offers both visual privacy for police personnel and openness for prominently displayed community spaces. Completed in 2006, the building may offer insight into how to design a new department headquarters for New Haven’s police. While SCSU’s nearly 30-year old University Police now have 27 sworn police officers, Yale’s PD remains somewhat unique among security for other area colleges in that it is much older – the oldest in the country, in fact – it is larger, and less insulated from the larger city due in part to its central location.
The Legacy of Community Policing in New Haven
Pastore remained the Chief of the New Haven Police Department until 1997 when a scandal forced him to resign. While community policing remained the focus of the department, Pastore’s successor, Chief Melvin H. Wearing, was unable to duplicate the charisma, drive, and relentlessness of New Haven’s policing guru. With funding from the federal government slowing by the 2000s and diverting to national security concerns, New Haven’s Police Department’s ability to fully staff its substations, patrol neighborhoods, and investigate incidents waned. By the time Francisco Ortiz became Chief in 2003, community policing in New Haven became more of a slogan than a set of ideals actively pursued through precise procedures, despite attempts at reviving the program. After nearly five years on the job, Chief Ortiz left for a position in the Yale Police Department in 2007 amid an ultimately damning investigation into the police department’s own narcotics unit.
“The New Haven Police shut down the Mudhole (a drug spot at the corner of Shelton and Starr streets in Newhallville) for a while with an operation they called Citizens and Police Against Criminal Trangression. CAPACT, which was introduced in 1988 to combat drug dealing, involved parking a manned police van twenty-four hours a day in a high-crime neighborhood and using it as a base for sweeps. In Newhallville, the van was parked directly across Shelton Avenue from the Mudhole, making it impossible for [the small gang that normally sold drugs at this location] to work there.
The Young officer [the author] found at the Mudhole (in the van) said…he thought that the neighborhood was far safer than it had been. ‘We still get shootings-we had one last night,’ he said. ‘But not every forty-five minutes, like it was before.’ Drug dealing was still going on two blocks away, he said, and would undoubtedly return to the Mudhole after CAPACT left, but nobody believed that CAPACT was the answer to the drug problem anyway. (CAPACT was, in fact, discontinues soon thereafter.)
Over several months, however, during which I passed CAPACT vans in Newhallville and Dixwell dozens of time, I never once saw policemen talking to a resident.” -William Finnegan, Cold New Haven pp. 67-68
New Haven’s Community Policing program, while on the decline for many years previously, officially ended in 2009 under Chief James Lewis. By saturating neighborhood trouble spots with officers directed to enforce even minor infractions, the Department returned to the kinds of reform-era paramilitary policing tactics that increase the number of arrests but also lead to accusations of harassment and few long-term jail sentences. As Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent reported in a 2009 article, “the new ‘targeted activity policing’ approach will employ tactical units, including a new ‘metro street crime unit’ that will move around, targeting specific behaviors such as prostitution and street robberies.” While many rank and file officers view reactive, law enforcement as “real” police work – like the kind seen on television – violent crime began to rise again in the late 2000s.
Beginning in the 1920s with reform-era strategies to reduce corruption around the police department, officers became less likely to live in, interact with, and relate to their precinct’s residents. By 2010, nearly 80% of the City’s police union members lived outside New Haven in surrounding towns – further contributing towards a sense that police had lost their community ties and were more of a foreign occupying army than a service provider. Perhaps highlighting the end of community policing was an unsuccessful attempt to close Beaver Hill’s Whalley Avenue substation in 2008.
Frank Limon, a Chicago police gang-busting veteran, became chief of New Haven’s department upon the retirement of James Lewis in 2010. Though Chief Limon expressed an interest in community-oriented police work, his first initiative involved the familiar tactic of saturating high-crime areas with officers. Lacking the clear vision and forcefulness needed to enact new procedures, Limon, like Nick Pastore before him, was given a vote a ‘no confidence’ by his police officers. Unlike Pastore, however, after little more than a year on the job, Chief Limon resigned – making way for a new chief dedicated to the kind of community policing efforts that created New Haven’s district substations.
Despite an overall drop in property and violent crime in the late 1990s, gang culture remained stubbornly embedded in many of New Haven’s languishing old-style public housing projects and working class neighborhoods. Partly contributing to a rising tide of violent crime by the late 2000s may have been that the kinds of transformative changes brought on by the HOPE VI and Choice Neighborhoods redevelopment programs in sections of West Rock, Dixwell, and Fair Haven were not equally experienced throughout the city. Public Housing development like McConaughy Terrace continued to struggle with crime even after a $12 Million renovation investment. Similarly, while Farnam Courts awaits redevelopment, crime remains a major issue in the existing complex.
West Rock’s Westville Manor, a formerly private market rate complex turned public housing project, continues to struggle with issues associated with isolation, lack of opportunity, and social homogeneity. Although privately owned and managed, Church Street South Housing serves a similar function in the regional market as mismanaged old-style segregated public housing while it awaits an inevitable redevelopment of its own.
While Newhallville, the upper Hill, and Dwight/Chapel have only one small family public housing project between them, the City’s Livable City Initiative (LCI) did demolish hundreds of city-owned buildings used as drug houses in those neighborhoods in 1996. Thanks in part to continued issues with small groups of neighborhood-affiliated gangs, however, these neighborhoods’ reputations have proven more difficult to remove. While the leadership of KSI in Dwight/Chapel was largely dismantled after joint local, state, and federal policing efforts in the 1990s, small neighborhood groups representing the Tre, Trey Deuce, New Jack City, etc., persist in the district.
Likewise, Hill North temporarily became a breeding ground for Crips sets in the late 2000s. Communities off I-91 Exit 8 have also seen a rise in gang activity and crime over the last decade as Section 8 vouchers and scattered site public housing have increased throughout the sprawling area. Absent a strong Housing Authority presence in these neighborhoods to enact large-scale redevelopment programs, non-profit affordable housing development organizations like Neighborhood Housing Services embarked on targeted housing rehabilitation program in places like Newhallville in recent years and teamed up with residents, city agencies, and district cops to support community policing efforts.
Dean Esserman, who served under Nick Pastore in the early 1990s, was brought back to New Haven and made Chief in 2010. With a strong and clear vision, Chief Esserman has ushered in a returned focus on community-oriented policing aimed at fostering trust among residents, gathering intelligence from investigative work, and preventative policing measures. In addition to addressing rising violent crime rates and continued gang activity, the new Chief of New Haven’s police department has also contended with growing national concerns regarding incidents of questionable and improper police procedure. While police brutality and harassment has been nearly constantly rampant with low-income and minority individuals and communities, recent national media coverage of incidents from police departments less well-versed in community policing initiatives seems to have further supported New Haven’s return to its community-oriented roots. Under Chief Esserman, neighborhood walking beats have increased to help improve relationships between officers and residents.
As of 2015, New Haven’s incidents of violent crime have been in decline since 2011, while the City’s population has simultaneously increased. Traditionally high-crime areas like Hill North – having experienced a recent lull – are helping lead this decline. Furthermore, survey results in January of 2016 reveal that City residents, on the whole, are feeling safer than they did just three years ago. New Haven has also seen some recent changes to policing facilities throughout the city. In 2014, the Town Green Special Service District, Yale PD, and NHPD opened the Downtown Community Alliance at 900 Chapel Street in a joint venture that now partially serves as the new replacement substation for the Downtown Community Policing District. The following year in 2015, it was officially announced that the Beaver Hills Community Policing District Substation would be moving further down the block from 386 Whalley Avenue to a storefront at 332 in order to be closer to problem areas around Winthrop Avenue. In March of 2016, an aldermanic panel approved funding for the creation of a new in-door police firing range facility on Wintergreen Avenue, which will finally remove the outdoor firing range at Sherman Avenue’s police academy building and bring much needed relief to residents of Beaver Hills and Newhallville. In May of 2016, it was announced that the lock-up at 1 Union Avenue Police Headquarters building would be moved to a new facility in the jail on Whalley Avenue as part of the State’s attempts to close a massive budget hole. In July 2016, Chief Esserman receive an overwhelming vote of “no-confidence” from the police union and later that month was placed on paid leave both connected to a series of internal and public incidents involving the chief. Fortunately, the NHPD seems committed to community policing with or without Dean Esserman as the head of the department.
For the most part, New Haven’s Community Policing Substations are strategically located among other public buildings like schools, fire houses, and day cares in the heart of traditionally high-crime areas prone to gang activity. Due to some of the districts’ large geographic areas, however, patrolling the entire district can be daunting. For instance, in Westville, Newhallville, East Shore, and Fair Haven – now that the Downtown substation was moved from Grand Avenue to the Green – officers and substations can be far from certain communities within the district. Eventual redistricting efforts may benefit from splitting the East Shore and Newhallville districts in two, combining the lower crime, and geographically small Dixwell district with Newhallville or Beaver Hills.
The design of the individual substations can be appreciated for its attempt to relate to domestic architecture with pitched roofs and chimney-like forms. Glass block windows and concrete walls provide privacy for the building users, while a covered plaza creates a public transition space between offices for police and passersby on the street. Unfortunately, the concrete construction and translucent windows can appear uninviting to some who may not be aware that community meeting rooms exist inside the substations.
The identical design for seven of the police substations, including the use of concrete block, helps to associate the buildings with one another, to the headquarters on Union Avenue, and with police work in general. Although an association with the brutalist police department building may not be ideal, a more important issue with identical design is that the settings of these buildings vary within the city from rolling hills suburban like in Westville to occupying important urban intersection in Fair Haven. In urban contexts where the plaza sits close to the street, the space works quite well, but among the rising topography of West Hills where the plaza sits far from the street surrounded by small houses, the space is less effective. The issue is less apparent in the three substations that occupy existing structures where they more seamlessly fit into their surrounding contexts, though are also less vocal about being police buildings.
If at some point funding becomes available to re-design the police substations and headquarters, Yale’s Rose Center on Ashmun Street may offer an appropriate model for how to design and program police buildings so that they combine privacy, safety, and openness to the public. Given the State and the City budgetary futures, however, that type of funding is unlikely to come through anytime soon, especially for the substations. Therefore, efforts should be focused on funding routine maintenance of existing facilities and increased use of the buildings. By planning more public events, hosting more community groups, and keeping the substations occupied with people and activities throughout the year, the existing buildings will naturally become more inviting and open to nearby residents. In addition to hosting Management Team Meetings, police substations could double as after-school community centers for tutoring, games, and counseling.
Another important piece of any effort to decrease crime, improve policing, and make the substations more useful is to encourage the development of surrounding areas. The more eyes of the street from nearby residences, the more shopkeepers casually surveilling corners, and the more people actively out walking the sidewalks coupled with police walking beats to build trust with residents, crime is less likely to occur in the first place, and more likely to be observed and lead to a conviction when it does happen. This is especially important in the blocks surrounding the police substations because it would decrease the likelihood of substations being vandalized or stolen from while opening up opportunities like replacing the glass block windows with more conventional windows in order to improve interior lighting and visibility from public streets. Large expanses of concrete walls may also be appropriate locations for murals depicting specific neighborhoods where each substation is located.
Despite the progress made in recent years to return community policing to the Elm City, complaints about police misconduct have continued. However, the eventual rollout of police body cameras and continued officer compliance with 2011’s General Order 311, which directs police not to arrest people merely for videotaping police arrests and interactions, will likely decrease the number of these incidents and their associated backlashes going forward.
The key to future success for New Haven’s Community Policing Substations depends less on the design its substations and more on the continued pursuit of community-oriented policing. If more cities followed this model, there likely would have been fewer unintended consequences associated with the 1994 crime bill, less need for court-ordered interventions in police work, and greater cooperation with officers to build substantial criminal cases. New Haven’s Police Department and its District Substations have, in many ways, been a model to the nation and may continue to be in the future so long as it avoids the pitfalls of centralized, military-style, and reactionary policing while fostering the kinds of neighborhood groups, like the Management Teams, that help police their own communities and build social capital.
Post-Script: A Note on Crime
New Haven is consistently placed on the list of Most Dangerous Cities. While tracking crime statistics and evaluating your personal safety are important, these types of rankings do little to actually inform people about the reality of crime in their daily lives. DataHaven, a non-profit data analysis organization, has thoroughly debunked these rankings. For starters, many older municipalities – typically in the northeastern United States – retain their colonial-era boundaries, which often times arbitrarily separate contiguous, urban and suburban neighbors from one another. In the example of New Haven, the highest crime neighborhoods in the region are nearly all located within the City’s municipal borders, yet the wealthiest suburban communities occupy their own separate towns. As a result, New Haven’s crime rate is artificially inflated as compared to other cities in the Southern, Midwestern, and Western US whose land area is quadruple the size of New Haven. I suspect that when comparing Census Block to Census Block, New Haven’s highest crime neighborhoods rank similarly to other distressed de-industrial neighborhoods throughout the Country. Furthermore, New Haven County likely has no more high-crime neighborhoods than other comparable metropolitan areas – with the only differences being that municipal boundaries place more of those neighborhoods and fewer high-income ones within New Haven’s borders.
While there is still too much crime in New Haven as compared to pre-1950, and violent crime, in particular, is still a major concern, the threat of crime varies widely based on where and how one spends their time. Several times in my life, I’ve heard non-city residents express a fear of traveling anywhere in the City by car. Many times I’ve heard city residents express a fear of traveling through certain neighborhoods. I’ve heard residents of those neighborhoods express concerns about a particular community within their neighborhood. Still further, I’ve heard residents of those particular areas worry about a certain stretch of street around the corner. Then there are residents of those blocks who take precaution when walking by specific buildings on the street. Then, of course, there are tenants of those apartments who avoid certain neighbors within their building. Many times there are also people within those apartments that avoid other members of their family in their apartment who might be involved in drug dealing or gang activity.
The vast majority of New Haven’s residents are just trying to get to work, go to school, buy groceries, and provide for their families. There is, however, a subculture of criminals present in New Haven, but their crimes are, in many ways, insular and only directly affect other members of that subculture. School teachers, receptionists, barbers, or bus drivers do not stand on street corners with a gun selling drugs. As a result, most people are unlikely to fall victim to the kinds of sensationalized crimes that pervade the evening news and influence perceptions about cities whose very strength lies with being full of other people that are different from you. While I will personally continue to remain vigilant and aware of my surroundings wherever I am, many of my prior fears and misconceptions about crime seem overblown and most likely irrational in light of this perspective on crime.