City seeks solution for teen crime surge
Article Source: The Yale Herald – Monday 16th, 2005
City seeks solution for teen crime surge
After safer decade, recent muggings may be a symptom of funding cuts to
BY KELLY BIT
They were approaching me from the back, and in my mind, I just thought,
'Oh God,'" a Yale student said of the mugging attempt he endured
on Crown St. on the night of Sat., Sept. 10. "I had this feeling
from the way they were looking at me that something was about to happen.
They were walking very slowly, like they didn't really have a purpose.
They kind of surrounded me while I was walking. One of the guys ran toward
me very quickly, jumped on top of me from the side, and tried to get into
my pants for my wallet. I pushed him off and started screaming."
Though police have temporarily increased patrols, community programs hope
to provide a more enduring response to crime.
Once in safety, the student started to reflect on what had happened. "I
guess they were looking for trouble, or one of the guys had dared the
other, but the other guys just didn't seem that into mugging me. They
kind of just stood there and blocked part of the sidewalk behind me. I'm
not really sure what they were thinking was going to happen."
Like the shaken student, the Yale community has been searching for answers
following a recent wave of local crime. Since Wed., Aug. 31, at least
six separate incidents of robbery or attempted robbery in the Yale vicinity
have been reported to authorities. On Thurs., Sep. 8, two days before
the Crown St. incident, Yale Police Chief James A. Perrotti sent an E-mail
to the Yale community in which he acknowledged the spike in criminal activity
on or near campus. "During these opening weeks of the semester,"
he wrote, "we have experienced a disturbing increase in robberies
in areas surrounding campus. Several of these crimes have been committed
by teenagers who are riding bicycles and who have what appear to be weapons."
Yet according to Perrotti, the recent crimes are not isolated abberations;
rather, they offer the latest snapshot of a more protracted trend of increasing
crime—a trend that police first identified last spring. "Within
the last, probably, six months or more, there's been an upsurge [of these
types of crimes]," he said. Jennifer Pugh, deputy chief administrative
officer for the City of New Haven, confirmed the trend. "The police
department noticed an increase around the time school let out last year,"
she said. "They noticed that the number of young people on bicycles
traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood increased."
In response to these incidents, Perrotti has dispatched police units
to patrol each of the recent crimes sites around the clock. Yet the unique
character of these attacks—specifically, their frequent execution
by teenagers traveling in informal "bike gangs"—suggests
the presence of an underlying problem that may require more than increased
patrolling to fix. Though overall crime rates in the city continue to
hover at the lowest levels in recent history, the recent wave of criminal
activity also comes at a time when state and federal funding is being
slashed for community policing programs—the same programs that were
largely credited for reining in the city's crime woes in the '90s. Now,
reports of muggings are again growing, and available funding is evaporating.
In this climate, the city government—and its state and federal counterparts—must,
on the one hand, answer to critics who say it is failing to provide for
at-risk teens, thereby threatening increased violence, and, on the other
hand, devise new way to remedy the current situation.
OSTENSIBLY, NEW HAVEN HAS SEEN THIS KIND OF high-profile crime before,
during the rough-and-tumble days of the late '80s and early '90s. In September
1988 alone, there were seven homicides in the city. That same year, Park
Street suffered a wave of shootings, though crimes on campus were down
30 percent from 1987.
In 1989, Mayor John C. Daniels reported a 40 percent dropout rate of
NewHaven youth in public high schools, and the New Haven Police Department
released figures showing that incidents of aggravated assault had risen
80 percent from the previous year. That year, too, saw the University's
first Security Awareness Week—a direct response to the elevated
levels of campus crime. Another wave of assaults hit Yale students in
1990, though overall crime plateaued.
In the throes of this bleak era, Daniels proposed a new policy of community
policing. From its inception, the program, as defined by the New Haven
Police Department, has served as "a problem-solving partnership between
the police and the community," where officers are "jointly responsible
not just to catch criminals but to help wipe away the community decay
that fosters crime." Its success was virtually immediate. "Training
the police force has changed the face of the police and the face of the
neighborhoods," Claudia Merson, Public School Partnerships coordinator
for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, said. Indeed, Daniels'
introduction of community policing played an integral role in reducing
crime—for so long the city's Gordian knot. Rates of reported incidents
decreased steadily and dramatically during the '90s. By the end of Daniels'
tenure, the number of officers patrolling the streets had tripled and
crime rates had begun to improve ["After four years, Daniels cedes
City Hall, YH, 11/5/93].
The establishment of community policing in the city, of course, required
funding, which, much like today, was unavailable due to budget issues.
By January 1990, the the dire status of New Haven's budgets had begun
to hamper the city's funding for programs and educational services. A
month later, Daniels claimed the city lacked money to expand its police
forces. He wasn't lying: From 1990 to 1991, New Haven labored under a
$38 million budget gap. When crime surged again in 1992, Daniels pointed
his finger at the federal government. "Until the nation decides to
pay as much attention to its cities as it does to its position in the
world," he said, "this city and other cities are going to continue
to produce drop-outs who become young murderers and would-be murderers"
["Daniels responds to surge in crime," YH, 3/27/92].
And though the economy of the '90s funneled ample resources into community
programs, today's community leaders have once again identified insufficient
funding as the most powerful force plaguing community policing efforts.
Dee Linehan, director of the Department of Social Development under the
New Haven Board of Education, explained that the manpower necessary to
run community policing efforts, including mentoring programs, simply cannot
function without money. "Funding for mentoring has been cut,"
she said. "Our department, for instance, had a grant, and the police
department had a grant, but we both lost funding. [The reduced funding]
didn't support police officers and administrators of the program,"
she said. As a result, a number of social programs have either closed
their doors or taken an indefinite sabbatical: The New Haven Mentoring
Program, a community policing initiative, suffered from empty coffers
and has been inactive for six months; the ELERT Crime Prevention Program,
designed to prevent drug trafficking, hasn't received state funding for
two years; and JUMP, the Juvenile Mentoring Program, has also been inactive
for several years. "Money just dried up," Linehan said. "It
was a priority of President Bush's, but quietly last year [programs were]
unfunded from the feds."
The anemic New Haven programs, moreover, do not stand alone—all
across the nation, community policing efforts are being thwarted by funding
crises. "What's different now, as compared to five years ago, is
that there has been a dramatic reduction in federal funding. States and
local districts are finding that departments have to do more with less,"
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum
(PERF), said. Wexler believes one way community leaders can overcome funding
problems is to use shorter-term strategies that are less expensive but
still effective. "Changing the lighting and environmental factors
by using a more visible police presence, telling people to not walk alone
but together, and putting cameras in certain locations would help prevent
crimes from happening. Police departments have to be more innovative and
creative than they have in the past."
BY MANY ASSESSMENTS, THE PRESENT PLIGHT OF these programs, given their
history of success, may be a valid explanation for the recent crime surge
in the Elm City. A number of individuals, however, question this connection.
Some, for instance, dispute the claim that the ineffectiveness—or
just plain absence, due to funding issues—of community policing
and mentoring programs leads directly to incidents of youth crime. Others
feel that alternative factors are equally, if not more, significant.
"It's right to suggest that enrichment efficacy programs are decreasing
and the number of children who are becoming involved in entry-level gateway
kinds of offenses is increasing," Dr. Steve Marans, professor of
Child Psychiatry and director of the Yale Child Study Center's National
Center for Children Exposed to Violence (NCCEV), said. "But when
adolescents get to the point of engaging in more violent crimes and assaults,
such as shootings or stabbings, they are demonstrating the level of difficulty
in their development beyond the benefits of after school programs alone."
What is needed instead, Marans said, is "psychologically informed
supervision of the legal kind, support not based on punishment but recognition
of symptomatic disturbance."
Others believe the key to reducing youth violence lies in forging stronger
connections between parents and children. "I think the biggest case
[of youth violence] is the lack of parent involvement," said Luz
Garcia, project manager for the Weed and Seed Program, a federal initiative
designed to eliminate crime in target neighborhoods. "A lot of these
kids grow up with little structure, discipline, or parent involvement.
Parents create an important part of this. If they don't involve themselves
in their children's lives it makes our jobs more difficult. It's hard
to keep kids off the streets once they reach a certain age."
Charles Williams, New Haven director of Instruction for High Schools,
offers a different analysis: He believes the state of the economy is the
driving factor behind increased crime rates. "The economy has become
extremely tight," he said. "When that happens, no matter where
you are, people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to meet basic
needs. Each time in history at times like these, when there's been an
escalation of crime and crime-related activities, such as armed robberies
in the streets, there's also an economic crunch."
DESPITE THE RANGE OF OPINIONS, FEW DISPUTE THE positive effect that community
policing and mentoring programs can have on supressing crime rates. Armed
with this recipe for success, the challenge now, for both police departments
and community programs, is figuring out how to revive these efforts in
the absence of support from the public sector.
One organization, the Concerned Citizens for the Greater New Haven Dixwell
Community House, more widely-known as the "Q House," has become
emblematic of this quest. Founded by leaders of the Dixwell community
in 1924, the Q House community center closed over two years ago after
programs and services could no longer run due to mismanagement. Though
the City of New Haven, United Way, New Alliance Bank, and the Community
Foundation for Greater New Haven are all funding the reestablishment of
the Q House, a committee of 11 people plan to overcome the crisis of insufficient
funding by working with a strategic planner, Cornell Wright, CEO of the
Parker Wright Group. "We are launching a sustainability effort so
we don't have to rely solely on seeking funds," he said. "We
are in the development stage of this, but we have hired a strategic planner
to go into the community and develop a plan that will involve talking
to different agencies, individuals, and will work the community to make
Following the Q House's projected Thanksgiving reopening, The Dixwell-Yale
University Learning Center, a new resource known also as the Rose Center,
opens in January. Through university funding, the center will offer youth
education programs during the school year and summer. "This fall,
[the Center] will take a group of at-risk middle school students for a
three-year intervention program," Merson said. "It will start
in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and will follow them through
In the meantime, it seems that all local organizations involved in youth
outreach programs—the NHPD, the Yale Child Study Center, the Department
of Social Development, the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, and
others—are weathering a transitional period as they discuss how
to overcome the budget crisis amid the recent increase in youth crime.
"There has been a series of meetings the [Social Development Department]
hosted in the middle of August, with the Board of Education, the Yale
Child Study Center, and other social service-type people," Pugh said.
"There was an agreement to do what we could to address this issue
and in the longer term pull together experts and resources."
In terms of the recent wave of crime, Pugh pointed out that the police
are gradually learning how to distinguish the kids who are committing
crimes today from those who did in the '90s, so they can respond accordingly.
They have already been able to demographically categorize most of these
youth offenders by region. "The neighborhoods these kids are from
are mostly what is known as the 'Corridor,' which runs from Hillhouse
south and north up through Dwight and Edgewood, up to Dixwell, Newhallville,
and Southville, up to Hamden, and makes a line through the center of the
city," she said.
If anything is certain, it's that the youth of New Haven, like youth
everywhere, will always need firm guidance, and the nature of that guidance
will always have to respond to the times. "Our work is never done,
to be quite honest," New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz said.
Pugh, however, remains optimistic. "Anything can spark off interaction,
retaliation, and it's important to identify new kinds of activity. Cops
on bicycles are starting to engage these kids to talk to them to get a
better handle on who they are and what's going on here," she said.
"But I don't know that we have all the answers."
© 2004 The Yale Herald | The Herald is an undergraduate publication
at Yale University.