Leslie Radcliffe recalls that when she moved into her house on Truman Street four years ago, before becoming captain for the neighborhood watch, “Truman Street had a reputation for being one of the worst [streets] in the Hill,” she said. When the skylight of her house was shot out in a random act, she insisted she would not be frightened off; instead, it confirmed her desire to help change her block’s notoriety. Radcliffe reached out: she learned who the alderwoman and Police Department district manager and walking beat officers were for her part of New Haven’s Hill area. She met neighbors who, like her, wanted to be involved in street cleaning, neighborhood beautification, and a community garden.
The Truman Street watch is a volunteer group of citizens whose primary goal is to support public safety in their neighborhood; it is one of at least 45 neighborhood watches of varying sizes in the city of New Haven. This month, the NHPD began sharing its daily Flash Sheet newsletter with New Haven volunteer block watches, signaling a deep trust between police forces and volunteer citizen groups. The most common tasks that these watches take on are simply keeping an eye out for crimes, such as theft or vandalism, and getting in touch with the police, either to prevent a crime or to help inform authorities of what occurred.
In her own yard, Radcliffe started gardening for the first time. Digging in the dirt outside gave Radcliffe, who works as a senior administrative assistant at the Yale School of Medicine, an opportunity to socialize with people in the neighborhood. At first, she would meet people, such as children on their way to school, who were surprised that a neighbor was greeting them. Over time, her private garden provided a way for anyone to communicate over a shared interest in their street: “I would have interactions with the neighborhood drug dealers, and they would say, ‘That’s pretty.’”
What she didn’t bring up during these cordial conversations was that she was providing information to the New Haven Police Department with the goal of reducing drug dealing and other criminal activity—and that the eight person block watch that she led was helping to shut down six locations on the street known for drug dealing.
This June the NHPD hosted the first bimonthly meeting with neighborhood block watch officers. At these meetings the Police Department’s media liaison, Officer David Hartman, talks to new captains about how to properly run a block watch: how to collect the information they would need in order to report a crime, how to reach their district director and beat officers. For more experienced watch members, attendance means an opportunity to understand their neighborhood’s crimes in the context of the whole city.
The meetings can also open the doorway to share creative strategies to fight crime. Lisa Siedlarz, captain of the 500-member SoHu (South of Humphrey Street) neighborhood volunteer association in lower East Rock, was able to share the success of a neighborhood strategy to catch someone who was stealing packages off porches. In response to widespread package theft, neighbors placed dummy boxes filled with scrap metal or rotten grapefruit. After neighbors saw a man try to take the fake packages, one was able to call the police and have him arrested.
Following a request at the June meeting, Savannah Smith, project coordinator for community watches for the NHPD, created a map showing the blocks covered by watches throughout the city. The map is the first of its kind and gives a sense of the connectivity—or disconnectedness, depending on who you ask—of the city’s neighborhood watches. The map shows large, fully filled-in regions in East Rock and Wooster Square, while other parts of the city are less sketched-in, or not at all (in fairness, they may have their own block watches, but Smith does not know of them). According to the NHPD, the blank space represents an opportunity. “We’re hearing from more people who want to start watches,” Smith told me. “One of the big things is encouraging people to start them in their neighborhoods.”
Police hope that a more filled-in block watch map will help accomplish their goals of monitoring New Haven’s various neighborhoods; with information from watches spread all over the city, the police hope to better understand the spatial distribution and movement of criminal activity.
The department’s new promotion of block watches comes at a difficult political moment. A specter looms in any conversation about neighborhood watches since Sun., Feb. 26, 2012, when George Zimmerman, a volunteer for a watch in a gated community in Sanford, Fl., shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. In media coverage during Zimmerman’s trial, the watch was sometimes portrayed as a vigilante group that encouraged citizens to arm themselves to defend their neighborhood through lethal force.
The New Haven Police Department’s decision to reinforce a block watch program comes two years after the 2011 appointment of Dean Esserman as police chief. Esserman helped champion community policing while an officer in the 1990s, but by 2009, this approach to policing had fallen out of practice in the NHPD. Now, as chief, Esserman has reintroduced the practice of officers walking beats and getting to know the communities in which they work.
The NHPD’s brand of community policing aims to empower citizens to maintain the safety of their communities. Its website features a guide to “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” which gives advice on “defin[ing] and protect[ing] territory” to show that a house is cared for and to warn would-be criminals that a break-in would be noticed. These messages are signaled through features such as “decorative shrubbery, which is neatly trimmed especially under windows and around doors.” The guide also encourages neighborhood outdoor events such as block parties, clean-ups, festivals, and tag sales, as a way to help neighbors get to know one another.
Community policing strategies inform the way that police and these neighbors interact. A neighbor, the department believes, is much more likely to reach out to a beat officer if each considers the other a member of a shared community. “If something happens and you need to call the police, it makes a world of difference if you’re talking to someone you already know,” John Fitzpatrick, a block watch captain in the Chapel-Ellsworth block watch in Westville, said. “That makes us more comfortable working with them.”
Still, questions remain about the ways these watch groups approach issues of racial prejudice. Zimmerman gained infamy from his perceived racial bias against Martin, and Peter Webster, the captain of Wooster Square block watch, said New Haven is not free from harmful racism. “I find this a racially polarized city,” he told me. “I think it’s because people don’t know how other people live.” Even within the Wooster Square watch he has witnessed the issue of unjust perceptions of race. He recounted how one of the watch members, who is not white, felt the need to respond to a white fellow member who was failing to treat him fairly: “He said, ‘Can’t you just see me as a human being, and as your neighbor?’”
The association with Zimmerman is an uncomfortable one, and Webster explicitly expressed disgust over Zimmerman’s actions: “We don’t chase kids in hoodies down in dark alleys with guns.” In fact, most New Haven neighborhood watch groups don’t chase anyone; instead of patrolling neighborhoods, they gather information by keeping an ear to the street. “They’re our eyes in the community,” Smith explained. “They’re out there. They’re seeing things happening in their neighborhood, and they live there so they know it better than we do.”
The Wooster Square watch most commonly serves low-scale crime preventive purposes. It was revived from dormancy in 2009 to deal with the fact that Court Street between State and Olive Streets, which serves as a thoroughfare from the Square to downtown, was “exceptionally dark,” Gustafson remembered. The resulting outbreak of muggings directed toward pedestrians passing in either direction led neighbors to publicize the issue on SeeClickFix—the website through which residents can share specific concerns about the city and have them addressed by officials. At this point the neighbors began to gather as a block watch. From their first meeting, city officials supported the project; the police chief and a city lighting engineer showed up to the initial meeting.
Today, the block watch has a strong online presence. Following a precedent set by Gustafson, Webster is sending out regular e-mails to a recipient list of 536. These emails condense information learned at the NHPD’s Flash Sheet newsletter or bimonthly hosted meetings—for example, a bulletin alerting neighbors to citywide Honda Civic tire thefts—and they include practical advice on avoiding crimes: the types of lugnuts to use on hubcaps to keep tires in place; the names of local automotive shops that will change the parts out).
Decades before this resurgence, the Wooster Square block watch had played a strong role in the neighborhood. Alexander Bragg, a former pilot in the Air Force, had grown up in the neighborhood and became captain after moving back about 23 years ago. I walked into the square with Webster and Bragg, who asked a man sitting at the granite monument called the DeLauro family table if we could share the table. He did not give a discernible response, and we sat down at the table, which Bragg regularly treats with protective applications to keep it shiny and graffiti-free.
Bragg told me that when he was block watch captain, he took a “boots-on-the-ground” approach in the position. He would identify people who were not from the neighborhood behaving in ways that indicated drug-related activity—for example, unfamiliar cars with people waiting inside them—and would ask them not to engage in that activity in the neighborhood: “I would treat them with the ultimate respect, and 98 percent of the time they stopped.” In these instances his method was not to involve police or to seek arrests in the first place, which he said was a successful approach. The other two percent of the time? “It was problematic,” he explains. If they threatened him, he wouldn’t engage, instead calling the police.
As we spoke, Webster interrupted with concern, “This guy’s in pretty bad shape, Alex.” He was looking at the man who had left our shared table and was hunched near a tree. Bragg acknowledged his comment, “He’ll be okay, we’ll check in later.”
Now Bragg, who is retired, volunteers as a Guardian Angel, an unarmed civilian patrol group that works in a few neighborhoods including Bella Vista, West Haven, and Columbus Mall in Wooster Square. In contrast, none of the current watch officers I spoke to have any sort of patrol in their neighborhood. Still, they can be visible. John Fitzpatrick in West River said that when he meets neighbors for the first time, they will sometimes greet him with, “You’re the block watch guy, right?” On Truman Street in the Hill, because of concern for their safety if they were known to be communicating with the police, most block watch members are not public about their involvement with the watch. As with elsewhere in the city, these are neighbors actively engaging with their community in a variety of ways—cleaning up streets, polishing monuments, and tending gardens. The block watches throughout New Haven, Leslie Radcliffe says, “may work in different ways, but we’re working towards the same thing, which is to provide safer neighborhoods—not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors.”