Where police are allies, not enemies

September 23, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

NEW HAVEN — NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- There's a lot more to community policing than getting cops out of their squad cars and walking the beat. New Haven provides the evidence.

Since Nicholas Pastore took over as police chief in 1990, New Haven has made so many innovations that his department qualifies as America's No. 1 experimenter in community policing.

''We have focused squarely on the next generation,'' the chief says. New Haven's youth programs range from efforts to combat truancy and community-based juvenile probation to intensive work with gangs. The police work more closely with the schools than perhaps any other department in the country.

A Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners is chosen by high school peers. Some had been potential truants or criminals. Youth commissioners have direct access to the chief, who has heeded them on issues such as curfews. They're invited to interview police recruits. Every one of the first youth commissioners, elected in 1992, has gone on to college.

One indicator of New Haven's success: the U.S. Justice Department has awarded grants to four cities -- Nashville, Tenn., Buffalo, N.Y., Charlotte, N.C., and Portland, Ore. -- to replicate the city's model Child Development-Community Policing Program, run jointly with the Yale Medical School's Child Study Center.

The object is to provide immediate and ongoing psychological aid to children who see or become victims of crime. In cases ranging from arsons to drive-by shootings, Yale psychologists have rushed out to crime scenes to comfort children and start a healing process that will thwart the familiar pattern by which children exposed to violence later may turn to serious crime themselves.

Many of New Haven's innovations are simple. Nine small red-roofed police substations, each headed by a police lieutenant, are scattered through the most crime-prone neighborhoods. They are bases for police patrols, and they also offer after-school programs, small libraries, meetings of drill teams and school cheerleaders, mediation sessions to resolve less serious community disputes. Each substation has a management team -- neighborhood residents who convene, engage in planning with the lieutenant, try to decide where police presence is most needed and pinpoint troublesome situations in the neighborhood.

At the substation beside Elm Haven, previously the site of six notorious, derelict public-housing high-rises, I discovered an almost family-like informal atmosphere. Even gang members in search of jobs have been known to drop by. As Capt. Odell Cohens, who commanded it in its first years (1991-93), visits, young black males call out to greet him. The lingo is inner-city, but the spirit like a traditional American village. Small wonder, said Captain Cohens: ''I knew most of them when they were growing up.''

Who's who

In fact, the New Haven police do seem to know their communities -- individual families, which kids are skipping school, who the troublemakers are. Juvenile probation officers work directly out of and cooperatively with the substations. Sometimes when a youth on probation comes into a substation for a scheduled appointment, friends come along.

None of this means New Haven is soft on crime. In 1992 Chief Pastore set up a gang task force, enlisted federal and state prosecutors' help and went after five drug-dealing gangs -- the Jungle Boys, the Ville, Wild Wild West, KSI and the Latin Kings. There were 94 drug and weapons indictments, each leading to conviction and a 20-to-25-year sentence.

The department works directly with peaceable youth-led groups in the city, among them Zulu Nation and Youth Mediators. Its officers in the schools will challenge threatening strangers at school gates, hold classroom sessions on handgun violence and conflict resolution, pay a home visit to any child who starts fight in school. The word, in short, is blanket coverage -- a far cry from some confused cop suddenly assigned to roam a troubled school's hallways.

Plagued by old-line officers' suspicions (even a ''blue flu'' work slowdown) when he first took office, Chief Pastore successfully altered his department's culture, partly through improved training, partly by appointing many blacks and women and some gays and lesbians to his department.

Crime is still uncomfortably high in New Haven, but far below its early '90s levels. The big difference is this: Police are no longer the enemy of the neighborhoods, but allies. It's a model for every American city.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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