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A word in the dark

Maddie Butler YH Staff

Maddie Butler YH Staff

It was just past midnight on Monday, December 30, 2013 and a bitter cold kept most of New Haven off the streets. Earlier in the evening, Blue Man Group had played a sold out performance at the Schubert Theater and the Yale men’s hockey team had beaten Holy Cross, 4-1, at Ingall’s Rink. By midnight, the celebrations had died down, and the last moviegoers at the Criterion had shuffled home after a late show of “American Hustle.” The day ahead would bring heavy construction work snarling downtown traffic, but for the police officers stuck with the graveyard shift that night, there was little to see. Crime tends to spike during the holidays, however, so the officers stayed attentive. They drank coffee, cracked some jokes, and shared New Year’s plans. Then all of the sudden, static broke the silence on the department radio—an unfamiliar voice, soft and slow, and just one word.

“Nigger.”

About a dozen people in the department heard the rogue voice over the airwaves. Police Chief Dean Esserman was not one of them, but he was quickly informed of the transgression, and, before sunrise, he ordered an internal affairs investigation. By Monday morning, word of the “incident,” as it would often be characterized, had spread through the department. Officers shared their opinions as they patrolled; lieutenants exchanged theories over lunch. Responses ranged from anger to apathy, but one question consumed them all: who was the voice on the other end of the radio?

NHPD digital logs record every word uttered over the police radio. Typically, dispatchers can match the source of any radio correspondence with an identification number, and can even pinpoint the location of each transmission with relative accuracy. This particular broadcast somehow managed to elude them. Weeks passed with no leads. With pressure and frustration mounting, Chief Esserman handed the tape over to the FBI for a more sophisticated forensic examination. Soon, officials had narrowed down the suspect list to three people. One stood out: a 20-year old man from North Branford, a town two miles east of New Haven. Just weeks earlier, the man, whom the police have not yet named, had placed mock police lights on his car and joined a police chase in New Haven. Now, according to Louis Cavaliere, Jr., president of the NHPD union, the man has all but confessed to hacking his way onto the police department’s airwaves.

With the department fairly certain of its innocence, the story might have disappeared—this police force has seen its share of impertinent 20-year-olds. But racial tensions within the department and the city have run so deep for so long that anger, fear, and mistrust quickly erupted in New Haven, all because of one word.

***

Police in the Elm City, over the past few decades, gained a troubling notoriety. Beginning in 1964, the department illegally wiretapped the phones of thousands of local residents considered “radicals,” a practice that continued for nearly a decade. For the NHPD, this meant Vietnam War demonstrators and many activists who came daily, in 1971, to the green across from the courthouse to protest the murder trial of Bobby Seale, leader of the Black Panthers. Yale counted many professors among those secretly monitored. Nick Pastore, the head of the department’s intelligence division, ran the wiretap program. Years later, when he testified about those covert efforts before a police board inquiry, many officers considered it an act of betrayal.

Over the next decade, the New Haven Police Department was run like a military operation. The city teemed with drugs and murder rates soared. Shootouts between rival gangs left dead bodies in the streets. Cops known as the “beat-down posse” hid in vans and broke up groups of young black and Latino men by pummeling them. To protect themselves from the public, police erected bulletproof glass around the welcome desk at their headquarters. Many city residents grew alienated from the police and saw no point in cooperating with authorities who, in their eyes, were roughing up their children. Meanwhile, crime rates rose. In 1989, with crack cocaine a ubiquitous presence, the murder rate in New Haven was 27.4 per 100,000 people, worse than New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By 1990, New Haven ranked sixth in violent crimes per capita among American cities with populations of more than 100,000. That year, many months had an average of six incidents of gunfire reported each day.

Against the backdrop of those bleak numbers, Mayor John Daniels in 1990 named Pastore, who had testified about the surveillance program, to head the department. In a move many considered audacious during that crime-vexed time, Chief Pastore began an experiment in community policing, a program in which cops get out of their cars, walk beats, and get to know the people they serve in the hopes of improving ties between the force and the community. The public, for the most part, embraced the policy as a sign of reconciliation, but officers and the union saw it as too soft considering the dangers police faced.

The New Haven police force never reflected demographically the racially and ethnically diverse community it served. When Pastore took office, the city was 49 percent white, 35 percent black, and 13 percent Hispanic; the police force was 80 percent white, 17 percent black, and less than 1 percent Hispanic. Pastore never succeeded in diversifying the force much more, although he did manage to improve relations and to nudge the crime numbers down. But after he left his position in 1997, subsequent chiefs abandoned the community policing strategy. Crime crept back up. The policy has since been revived and crime rates have declined and mostly stabilized.

Dean Esserman, who had served as Pastore’s deputy, was appointed chief in 2011, and is now the person responsible for dealing with, among so much else, the N-word incident. The department he heads better represents the diverse population of New Haven, but the numbers remain unbalanced. As of 2012, the last year with available demographic data, New Haven’s population was 42 percent white, 35 percent black, and 27 percent Hispanic; currently, the police force is 54 percent white, 19 percent black, and 26 percent Hispanic. Since the nineties, crime has dropped significantly in New Haven, as it has in so many cities across the United States. According to the FBI, New Haven today ranks 20th nationally in violent crimes, a significant improvement from the dangerous 1980s and 90s. Today, days go by without any reports of gunfire. But while crime rates have eased and the bulletproof partition between the department and its visitors has been removed, some barriers remain.

Indeed, to many New Haven residents, the N-word incident is one isolated moment, one grievously penetrating blow. More appalling, they say, are the regular episodes of racial disparagement, harassment, and even brutality on the part of police officers sworn to protect the community and empowered with guns and the authority of their office. To some, it’s unimportant that the evidence seems to suggest that someone outside the department uttered the N-word that night— it was entirely believable that someone within the department could have said it.

***

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, there’s a problem, and little fires turn into big fires,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP. “You have individuals with the ability to take someone’s life. They have guns. They have a lot of power. They have the ability for someone to be free or not free. They have the power to arrest. They have the power to put felonies on people. A police officer can destroy someone’s life forever. When you give people that kind of power and they’re racist or they’re prejudiced or they don’t have sensitivity to the people that they’re sworn in to protect and serve, you have a huge, huge problem. And this is something that our community has been dealing with for a long time.”

Regardless of who uttered the word itself, he said, the N-word incident “opens a lot of old wounds.”

In addition to more historical grievances, black officers and activists cite several recent events as evidence of an atmosphere at police headquarters in which racism is condemned forcefully in public, but condoned tacitly in private.

One such event occurred in June 2012, when Sgt. Chris Rubino, who is white, stepped on the neck of a young black man, Horace Rawlings, during an altercation even though Rawlings was handcuffed and prone on the ground at the time. Although Sgt. Rubino had been disciplined six previous times, he received only a 15-day suspension. Worse to local residents and civil rights leaders, the police union supported his actions, even though video evidence showed unequivocally that Rawlings was not resisting arrest and posed no threat. Then there was the swastika that was drawn on the side of a car parked in a protected police garage last year. No culprit was found and the matter was not reported widely, but many officers within the department were shaken.

One incident that greatly upset black officers involved a white policeman who posted racially incendiary comments on his Facebook page last year. According to police personnel and other people who saw the entry, which was quickly removed from the site, the officer used an ethnic slur and made profane comments about Latinos. The same officer also referred to a black female lieutenant derisively as “Miss Butterworth.” Department officials familiar with the case who requested anonymity said that as a result of the posting, the offending officer was passed over for detective in his first attempt at promotion. The officer claimed to have been drunk when he wrote the comments and agreed to seek counseling. Still, he was moved up to detective on the next round of promotions, they said, and his case was never referred to any police disciplinary board. The case is officially closed, Cavaliere, the union chief, confirmed.

Many officers and outsiders thought the tepid official response to the Facebook infraction gave the impression that the department condoned such behavior. One African American official who has worked in the NHPD for many years, and who spoke only on the condition that his name and title be protected saying he feared negative repercussions for talking to the media, called the offending officer’s promotion to detective “a slap in the face to every Hispanic and African American officer,” and to the many “great black and white officers on this force who do their jobs well.”

This member of the force also worried that if prisoners learned of the detective’s tainted background, they could use the information to win appeals of their convictions on the grounds that evidence in their cases was contaminated because it was collected or processed by an officer with noted biases.

The N-word incident provided a dangerous “deflection,” he said, from these subtler but systemic signs of racism in the department. “They use it as a deflection to show ‘We are on it,’’’ he said, because such a comment is so obvious and brutal it demands attention. But the department leadership, he claimed, is not “weeding out” the less public racism “because they’re afraid it will be a bad reflection on them.”

“Rather than weed out,” he said, “they self-contain and conceal.”

When police are not transparent with the public about matters like racism within their ranks, they undermine their own effectiveness, said Vesla Weaver, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Yale. “If you have a department that is viewed, rightly or wrongly, by the community as having a tolerance of racial slurs, that is one of the sure fire things to undermine police legitimacy,” Professor Weaver said.

“When the most obvious, the most bigoted racial epithet is used, it does tend to elicit an appropriate reaction—it elicits disgust,” she noted. “But I’m more concerned with the fact that New Haven has not done as much as it should to combat the extreme levels of inequality in the city that lead to high rates of predatory violence, that lead to high rates of incarcerated black young people, that lead to massive gaps in opportunity.”

***

On Sun., Jan. 26, with the investigation into the source of the N-word remark still unresolved, 40 black officers met at a community room on Ashmun Street to discuss next steps. Officers shared their frustrations with local civil rights activists and members of organizations representing African American police: the New Haven County Silver Shields, the New Haven Guardians, and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. The black officers described the department as unwelcoming, a place of subtle slights to people of color. The stagnating state of the current investigation and the slap-on-the-wrist in the Facebook matter signaled to them a lack of commitment to standing up for officers like them, and for the residents of New Haven.

“The concern of the community is not the racial slur per se,” said Jim Rawlings, President of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP, “it’s that there’s a history of aspects of the police department in the day time wearing a blue uniform, in the nighttime wearing a white sheet.”

The officers and their supporters met again at a press conference they staged in the shadow of the Amistad Memorial outside City Hall on the evening of Thurs., Feb. 6. “The point of having the press conference was simply to get the attention of the powers that be in our city and to let them know that this really is a problem that is likely to explode if it isn’t brought under control quickly,” said John R. Williams, a civil rights attorney who, since 1969, has been handling discrimination cases, many involving the police in New Haven.

At the press conference, Williams read a letter calling on Chief Esserman to address not just the N-word incident but ongoing problems of racism in the police department. “There are additional concerns that this police administration treats black officers as suspects and second-class citizens in their workplace daily,” Williams said.

Many black officers said they are weary of white colleagues expressing racist and sexist attitudes with relative impunity. “Ultimately, the kind of things that we were talking about at this press conference would be a perfect setup for what you call a hostile environment employment discrimination lawsuit,” Williams said. “I’m hoping that it won’t happen, but if things didn’t improve that is where one would be going.”

Few African-American officers were willing to speak on the record about racism on the force, saying their workplace was uncomfortable enough, but they urged vigilance in pursuing a story on the subject. They said officers treated sensitivity training as a joke, that racist and sexist jibes were regarded as good-natured collegiality. Lt. Makiem Miller, an African-American officer with 18 years on the force, said that while he did not feel racial “tension” on a daily basis, “You’d be a fool and I’d be a fool to say that nothing happens. That’s just ignorance to say that nothing happens.”

But racism unaddressed has an insidious way of seeping out of headquarters, onto the airwaves, and into the public consciousness, observed many people interviewed for this article.

“The police department is a microcosm of larger society,” said Michael Jefferson, an attorney who started New Haven’s first All Civilian Review Board and who also hosts a show on 1340 WNHC radio. “Racism lives in every facet of our society… People do a great job of masking their true feelings about race and about those who they have sworn to protect and serve.” The N-word incident and other racist episodes attributed to the NHPD are “not isolated at all,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an aberration.”

Rawlings, too, sees the interconnectedness of individual acts of bias, in New Haven and elsewhere. “When you have gerrymandering when you have voting laws changed, when you have Trayvon Martin––these are interrelated,” he said. “You cannot think about this as an isolated incident in the police department.”

***

On a Thursday morning this February at NHPD headquarters, a room full of chatty police officers quieted for a moment, as their boss bowed his head and peered over the top of his glasses. “District 9 conveniently scheduled their investigation during CompStat,” Chief Esserman said austerely. The silence only lasted a few seconds, as the room quickly broke into a chuckle.

At each weekly CompStat (short for Computer Statistics or Comparative Statistics) meeting, NHPD leadership and some of its partners gather to discuss how to prevent and address crime in an interdisciplinary fashion. New Haven is a small enough city for such meetings to feel like a family reunion of sorts. The meetings take place at the beginning of the workday and many of the officers this week were disengaged, sipping coffee and tapping away at their cell phones, as Esserman’s talents were on full display. He was gregarious while making the rounds (“Call me when you finish decorating the office so I can come see it!”), sincere in the face of tragedy (“This is the second baby your team has had to deal with in the last few weeks. How’s everyone in your unit doing?”), and encouraging of good work (“New Haven is blessed to have the professionals in this room.”).

Esserman gets high marks overall for recommitting the force to community policing and for lowering the violent crime rate in New Haven. Since his tenure began, he also has doubled the number of children in the Police Athletic League’s summer program and regularly attends community gatherings from barbecues to memorial vigils.

But it is clear that the department leadership is exasperated by the continuing focus on this fleeting and mysterious racial episode and the door it has opened onto reports of other troubling episodes of racism in the department. Chief Esserman, Mayor Toni Harp, and organizations representing black officers have decided not to comment publicly on the N-word incident until the investigation is complete. The chief refused as well to discuss any aspect of racism within the department with the Herald. Officer David P. Hartman, the NHPD spokesman, initially responded to a request for comment from Chief Esserman with a curt email, stating: “The NHPD will not provide an interview.” When pressed further for access, Officer Hartman called, and in a tone evincing both frustration and hostility, accused the media of stoking the embers of a fire that he contended had been doused effectively, and of causing intradepartmental problems.

“It is the coverage of this specifically that has created issues between officers,” Officer Hartman said in phone conversation that he initiated in response to a request to interview Chief Esserman. “God knows why you are trying to report a story about this, but this is weeks old. We responded to this as a department, as a whole, not as black officers or white officers. We are not black, white, Asian, or Latino. We are blue. We have responded to media inquiries about this time and again. The issue is solved. This is done. The department has moved on.”

Initially, Chief Esserman agreed to an interview covering a range of topics, but then cancelled it. His assistant said he would respond instead to written questions, but once those were submitted, he refused to answer them. Multiple notes, emails, visits, and phone calls requesting an interview went un-answered or were declined. Officer Hartman even decried what he called the “imbecilic tactics” the Herald had taken to seek the chief’s point of view in a story about race and the force he leads.

***

The office of Louis Cavaliere, Jr. houses a volume and variety of snacks sufficient to quiet most of the stomachs at NHPD headquarters. Officers filter in and out all day long in search of everything from licorice to lollipops to cookies to pretzels. They come for the food, but they stay to talk––often enough to complain––and Cavaliere has gained an acute understanding of the department over the hours of listening to these gripes.

“There’s always something,” Cavaliere said, and not a minute after he took his seat on a gray Wednesday afternoon, the door swung open, followed by Officer Dave Totino, who was displeased by the lack of overtime hours he has been assigned this month. As he listened to Totino grumble, Cavaliere packed a wad of dipping tobacco behind his lower lip. He was named President of the NHPD Union a year and a half ago, after 17 years of service, and he has been steeped in the history of the department his entire life.

His father, Louis Cavaliere Sr., served in the same union role for 30 years, with only 13 months separating their respective tenures. The young Cavaliere looks the part too, with a pair of suspenders and silver hair that has receded far back from his forehead.

Cavaliere was one of the dozen or so people who actually heard the N-word on the radio that December night. He described the brief interlude as mild, not even particularly jarring. “It didn’t seem mean, like deep and mean. It was almost like a joke,” he said. “It was almost like clowning around. They were fooling around on the radio.”

Cavaliere spoke in a distinctly offhand tone about the incident and about race relations in the department in general. The officers who come to his office to unload their problems, he said, do not talk about racism in the ranks. “People come to me with every problem in the book, but not really a race issue,” he said. He dismissed as insulting any suggestion that the department needs more sensitivity training. Officers currently must undergo three hours of sensitivity training every few years. In the wake of the offensive radio utterance, the department plans to add more hours. Cavaliere said he has never attended any such sessions himself and doesn’t plan to start now. “We’re grown men and women here,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to put up a letter on the wall that says ‘These are the right things to say and these are the wrong things to say.’”

Sergeant Marco Francia, who wandered into Cavaliere’s office to grab some coffee, hesitated at first to discuss any issues of race, but was quickly incensed by the conversation he overheard and soon added his opinion. A patrol supervisor and a 26-year NHPD veteran, he blamed the African-American officers who gathered in protest on the steps of City Hall for dividing the force and pitting black against white in their response to the N-word affair. “You’ve got a group of people alleging that another group of people is all racist, and they’re out there in the general public telling people that,” said Francia, who is white. “That’s hurtful. That’s offensive. It’s offended people. It’s made people feel like, ‘Do we have two different departments here?’ ”

Cavaliere agreed and said that he has endured ribbing about being Italian. He said such comments were collegial banter, a sign of camaraderie. He doesn’t deny that minority officers face apparently racist remarks by coworkers; he just thinks they should take it as elbow-prodding jests. “If someone does say something off color, it’s not to hurt,” Cavaliere said. “It’s really a joke. People joke. I get joked everyday about my heritage. I hear, ‘Did you have a meatball sub today? Did you make homemade wine?’ Whatever. ‘You garlic-eating guinea’—I hear that all the time. All the time. It doesn’t bother me though. It really doesn’t.”

Both Cavaliere and Francia said that the black officers who held the press conference outside City Hall should have invited their white and Hispanic colleagues to join them in demanding that police leadership respond forcefully to the N-word incident. “That one-sided story makes it look like there’s not a fucking white cop or Hispanic cop in here that gives a shit about this and that disgusts me,” Francia said. He accused the officers who organized the event of posturing for personal political gain. “Does the department have a problem with race? No,” he said. “I think the problem is that some people want to make an issue where there isn’t an issue, and again, for political gain and for promotional purposes. There’s personal motivation. What you see on the front steps of City Hall, to me, that was an abomination.” As Francia denounced what he described as the African-American officers’ cliquish response, Cavaliere nodded in assent.

When Francia finally left to return to his post, Cavaliere sat back in his chair and allowed himself a moment’s peace. Even in his own office, he rarely gets any quiet. Rubbing his temple, he spat out the last of his tobacco before rising from his seat to finger through a collection of books. “You know where that word came from? The N-word?” he asked, opening a red dictionary. “It came from Greece. It started in Greece and the Germans took it and the Germans used it too. But that’s about as much as I know.”

***

Just two days after the N-word broke the calm of the New Haven police radio, Toni Harp was sworn in as the city’s 50th mayor, the first woman and only the second African American elected to the city’s top job. That she is African American put an immediate burden on her to address the anger that the incident unloosed in the police department and around New Haven. Still, Mayor Harp took more than four weeks to respond to the matter. In a January 30 meeting, Harp asked black officers to give her a week to deal with the issue. “If you don’t feel we are addressing it,” she told them, “you should put pressure on us to make sure we do.”

Since then, a month has passed and Mayor Harp has been consistently tightlipped. The Mayor’s office refused a request for an interview with the Herald and instead issued the following statement: “The City of New Haven has been a place of tolerance, respect, and acceptance – and these are ideals toward which my administration will continue working. Important conversations about cultural sensitivity and awareness are ongoing within our city’s police department and throughout city government.”

Harp has said repeatedly that she has faith in Esserman and supports community policing. On Tues. Feb. 18, she asked the city’s Board of Alders to reappoint him to his position, citing in particular the way community-based police work forges trust between the force and the people it serves. Most people interviewed for this article agreed with the Mayor and said they are hopeful that Esserman will continue to lower the city’s crime rate and strengthen ties to its increasingly diverse population. But many people insisted that, nonetheless, the chief sends a disquieting message to the public when he fails to engage with them forthrightly on the challenging issue of race.

Brian Wingate, Alderman of New Haven Ward 29 and Chair of Public Safety Committee, said that even though he thinks the city is “doing all that they can do” now to investigate what happened that night, “there should have been a speedier response” by Chief Esserman to the N-word incident, more of a reassurance that this or any other acts of racism would be punished in the strongest terms.

But Andrew V. Papachristos, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale, who has worked closely with the NHPD on a variety of initiatives, said in an email that he found the response by Chief Esserman and the Mayor “fairly swift and to-the-point.” He praised Esserman for “thinking hard and long about such issues and how they relate not just internally to police officers, but also how they relate to larger perceptions of police legitimacy and trust.”

The weightiest question is how to prepare police for the diverse communities they serve and work with. Both sides seem invested in improving and expanding “sensitivity training” despite reservations by many about its lasting impact. “A lot of times what we find is that when police officers come to those particular trainings, they come there, they sign their names, they go to sleep, they don’t participate in the real training,” said Jim Rawlings of the New Haven NAACP. Others added that, realistically, by the time someone becomes a police officer, his or her prejudices are already well formed. “When you reach a certain point in life,” said Michael Jefferson, the attorney who started the review board, “I just don’t think it’s going to help.”

More important than any singular training program, Jefferson said, is building respect for diversity “into the fabric of an organization.”

***

In the entrance of police headquarters hang the portraits of 20 officers who have died since 1855 serving the department and the people of New Haven. On September 10, 2008, Sergeant Dario Scott Apponte was killed in a car accident while racing to a domestic violence dispute. He left behind a wife and five children. Patrolman Frank T. Hawley, a father of three small children, was shot and killed on January 31, 1970, while working in an undercover gambling operation. Patrolman Walter Koella was shot while chasing a suspect on March 5, 1935, and died of his wounds nine days later. Above the portraits, a sign in big white letters tells all who enter that these men gave “above and beyond the call of duty.” It is a reminder of the tremendous sacrifice that officers make, of the pathos and difficulties the job holds. It is a reminder, too, of the standard to which the department holds itself, and to which the public must hold it.

“These things never end and people are always changing,” said John Williams, the attorney who spoke at the City Hall press conference. “Personalities are always changing, the name on the door is always changing, and these battles are never permanently won and locked away in the safe. These kinds of things are a struggle that never ends.”