(Opinion) Let’s take a deeper look at gun violence in New Haven. A look beyond the retroactive approach of throwing resources to violence-plagued communities after the fact.
New Haven, like most of the urban police agencies, has been suffering from a smaller than usual pool of police applicants. Nationwide distrust of police, and the approach taken with aggressive police reform, have turned away many prospective applicants. Meanwhile, what must not be ignored are the events since Ferguson (2014) that sparked the Black Lives Matter Movement, and brought to light several aspects of racial disparities that exist between the police and the Black and Brown communities they serve. Fast forward to the George Floyd incident in May 2020 that sparked worldwide demand for police reform. Many elected officials panicked and cut police budgets as a political “downpayment” for the upcoming phase of police reform.
New Haven is no stranger to social and political movements and protests. On the evening of May 30, 2020, roughly 70 people turned out to attend a nearly four-hour protest. Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators and other police reform advocates boldly protested outside the home of the New Haven mayor in efforts to pressure him and his administration to take immediate action on police reform by defunding the police department. They sought to see the New Haven police budget cut and money reallocated towards wrap-around resources for underserved communities in New Haven. On May 31, thousands took the streets and occupied I‑095, then had a standoff with police at 1 Union Ave.
Later that week, on June 5, 2020, a crowd of 5,000 demonstrators gathered on the Green at 3 p.m. Members of the Citywide Youth Coalition read a list of demands that included redistribution of $33 million in police department funding to schools and other organizations, elimination of school resource officers (cops), “ending the triple police occupation of New Haven” by Yale, Hamden, and New Haven police — and the demands went on. That same month, the City of New Haven announced a new round of budget cuts; the majority of the cuts were to the police department. Forty-eight positions were eliminated resulting in an 11 percent reduction in the size of the police force. The $4 million cut of the total police budget was consistent with a radical approach made by many mayors through the untested strategy of “defunding the police.” Thus the revolution of New Haven’s police reform has begun.
New Haven was not alone in this, as other urban cities were beginning to establish this formula for external change. What happened to George Floyd did not happen in New Haven, but the effects directly impacted the New Haven community, and other urban populations around the nation. The demonstrators at the May 30, 2020, protest stated, “We are grieving and going through the grief of seeing Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Jason Negron, Zoe Dowdell, Stephanie Washington, Paul Witherspoon, other people shot and killed in this city who never got justice.”
Police Budget Cut To The Ballot
I saw this as a very important opportunity for the City of New Haven to really hear what the community was asking the city’s management and public safety leaders to do. This was the perfect moment to start the process of creating a Community Inclusive Public Safety Plan that could serve as a short-term and long-term Blueprint for Community Wellness.
I had hoped that the result of the community concerns, raised by the protestors and demonstrators, would have produced a platform where police officials, community leaders, activists, educators, youth advocates, elected officials, artists and others could form a city commission think tank. With this, they would discuss, analyze, and create a draft of what the future of public safety should look like over the next five to ten years.
The follow-up feature to that should have included assuring that the major crime factors, like gun violence, would not be at risk of increasing, and that overall community safety could have the greatest chances of being achieved in the city.
The final resolve should have also included declaring that any significant changes to the yearly police budget affecting day-to-day community safety should have been placed as a voting question on the 2021 November ballot: Should the Police Budget be Cut by Approximately $4 million? With the issue on the ballot, all New Haven voters would have had a fair and equal voice.
The Perfect Storm
In 2020, the pandemic and racial divisions together weakened community safety. Gun crimes shot up across urban centers in the U.S., and many city leaders and police chiefs across America scrambled to come up with a response. In July of 2020, New York Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea tied the rise in shootings to increased amounts of prisoners released because of Covid-18 measures. Furthermore, the partial shutdown of state courts during the pandemic had led to delayed gun case prosecutions. Michael Sean Spence, director of policy and implementation at Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group, observed,“What we’re seeing is almost a perfect storm. The pandemic has exacerbated the root causes of gun violence.”
New Haven police leaders and other public officials would later adopt a similar public response in mid-July 2020, summing up the cause of the record-breaking gun crimes on the streets of New Haven as the result of Covid-19.
However, it is important to go back to the May 30, 2020, protest and the initial action requested of the community as it related to their desire for police reform, all of which started long before Covid-19. The community’s calls for police reform, or police restructuring, were not intended to happen at the expense of putting Black, Hispanic and Latino communities in more danger. New Haven’s reactionary reform resulted in a total cut in 48 critical positions in the police department, which included cutting approximately 24 vitally needed detective positions. Had a more thoughtful city management approach been done, filling those 24 detective positions would have ensured that the city would have the proper resources to adequately investigate the hundreds of open cold, gun-related cases.
s.New Haven Versus Afghanistan
From January 2019 until August 2021, a total of 48 United States soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. From the start of January 2019 until September 8, 2021, a total of 53 people were killed in New Haven. These numbers should shock the conscience of every Yale health pProfessional, law enforcement professional, and city official.
Afghanistan, a country of 252,072 square miles, with a population of approximately 31 million people, is known as a training ground for terrorists. New Haven, a city in Connecticut with 20.1 square miles and a population of approximately 130,331 people, is said to be known as the Model of Community Policing.
How is it possible that New Haven’s death toll due to gun violence since 2019 was higher per capita than that of the soldiers who are deployed into a war zone?
The initial steps to New Haven’s police reform should have included making sure that significant measures were in place to stabilize and reduce gun violence in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and high-risk populations. A safety assessment or safety impact study should also have been done to determine New Haven’s top public safety priorities before police budget cuts were made.
From Jan. 1, 2015. to Nov. 2, 2021, there have been approximately 634 total gun-related shootings (fatal and non-fatal). Approximately 545 remain unsolved.
These numbers are important because they represent people who are in our New Haven communities who have used a gun to violate the safety of others. These individuals freely move about our city spaces without any consequences.
These numbers also represent the 99 gun homicides and the trauma experienced by the surviving victims, their families, and friends, as well as those traumatized in the 545 non-fatal gun-related crimes.
I have worked with many residents who have had family members gunned down in the City of New Haven. I have had my own personal loss in my family due to gun violence in the city. The major grief factor that continues the trauma is knowing the person who shot your family member will likely not be arrested or made to take responsibility for their actions.
Case closures help grieving families through the mourning process. The often deescalate community behaviors that lead to more gun crimes.
Therefore, the other component to this early action to police reform should have been setting up a direct-trauma mobile recovery system for families and friends directly impacted by gun violence. That system should look at delivering those essential wraparound services that the family may need to aid in their recovery.
As New Haven approached the Spring of 2021, gun homicides in the city were beginning to surpass that of 2020. There was a new rapid increase of gun violence among Black, Hispanic and Latino teen males between the ages of 14 and 15-years old.
There’s also an unprecedented gun homicide rate for Black 14-year-old males that threatens infiltration of our school environments.
By the beginning of summer 2021, New Haven still did not have a Public Safety Plan that could serve as a Blueprint for Community Wellness. Gun violence continued ripping at the heart of the soul of the city by creating a cloud of terror in every neighborhood.
Sustainable Police Reform
On June 16, 2021, I publicly released “10 recommendations to Curb Urban Gun Violence,” a strategic crime plan to help get New Haven back on track.
I was confident then, and I am confident now that the immediate implementation of those recommendations would get the city back on track. Recommendations include:
• Establishing weekly community trauma and resource canvassing at shooting victim’s homes/incident area.
• Identifying youth, young adults, and women who are at risk of being victims of gun violence.
• Creating a blue-collar career placement summer program for high school grads and young adults; Installing cameras in areas where shootings have occurred and/or have the potential to occur.
• Creating resident officers by partnering with private property owners.
• Increasing racial diversity in the police department in the areas of district commanders and recruitment.
• Expanding the homicide division by adding more Black, Hispanic, Latino investigators.
• Restoring walking beats in the daytime and evening hours in each of the 10 police districts.
•Re-establishing community block-watch programs.
• Prioritizing traffic calming by installing speed bumps, humps and electronic speed feedback signs.
Put Priorities Over Politics
Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, present-day New Haven is experiencing a crisis of violent crimes and gun violence. New Haven’s city management desperately needs to work on creating a comprehensive public safety plan immediately.
This is not the time to continue the 18-month experiment of a proposed Crisis Response Team. As a former alder, I can attest that the program lacks budget transparency, cultural competency, and proof of implementation.
As a result of reactionary city politics, the 48 police positions that were cut in 2020 could have been restructured to create a special unit of detectives to investigate, resolve, and develop arrests for the 500=plus unsolved firearm assault investigations that have now become cold cases. The 500 unsolved cases that exist represent the perpetrators who continue to move about New Haven communities without any consequences. Thus, crime escalates.
We must approach New Haven’s gun violence as an ongoing health epidemic and make decisions that create sustainable police reform. We must come to understand that we did not get here because the police failed our New Haven communities. We must come to realize that we did not get here because our New Haven communities failed the police. We got here because leadership starts at the top, and city management failed to lead from the front.
This city management approach of micromanaging public safety and its partners is not the key to get our police department back on track.
A sustainable police reform approach should include an action accountability plan that saves the lives of people who are most at risk through early identification and prevention with a reporting method that tracks effectiveness. It should also include action programs that are focused at getting our New Haven youth into high school career trade and vocational programs and then actually getting them good paying jobs.
Additional programs should present youth with alternative opportunities that introduce them to career pathways like the Peace Core or the National Guard.
Another key piece is to have curriculum based social investment programs that will teach coping skills and interpersonal conflict skills to all our high school students that will help them better navigate challenging social conditions.
Like most urban centers, New Haven honestly does not need any more people or outside programs that seek to create a study on why Black, Hispanic and Latinos are constantly getting shot and killed in New Haven. We are now approaching the end of 2022 and, unfortunately, we are now in a citywide safety crisis that continues to threaten most every person who lives, works, and dares to play in New Haven. This is not the New Haven I remember when I was growing up. Now, as a New Haven grandfather, I want a Better New Haven so that every New Haven resident’s child and grandchild can grow up in safe and thriving communities.
Shafiq Abdussabur is a retired New Haven police sergeant and former Beaver Hills alder.