Hartford’s reputation nosedived this month as the national news media played — and replayed — a 90-second video of a hit-and-run on Park Street that left a 78-year-old man paralyzed from the neck down.
As the horrific accident became fodder for national news reports and cable talk shows, crime experts and city business leaders expressed concern that the negative image of the city could hinder Hartford’s revitalization efforts.
“Safety is a big issue, and if people see crime is on the rise, it could reverse that trend,” said crime expert Jack Levin, professor and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston.
Statistically, while overall crime rates are down in Hartford, murder rates have climbed 28 percent, from 25 in 2006 to 32 last year, and are nearly double the 17 homicides in 2004.
Rising crime rates resulted in the flight of the middle class flight out of the large U.S. cities during the 1990s, Levin said. The recent publicity clearly makes it harder for the city to attract middle class residents, he said, adding, “But it is not fatal.”
Although the rise in the homicide rate has not been headline news, the hit-and-run accident combined with the brutal beating of a former deputy mayor as he walked to breakfast at 9 a.m. within blocks of the state Capitol has been.
State Troopers Coming
The two incidents triggered not only news reports, but also a continuing uproar among city residents. It also prompted Gov. M. Jodi Rell to offer state troopers to assist city police beginning this week and a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the hit-and-run driver.
Although city officials are moving forward with their 18-month marketing campaign to promote the city, Albert DiChiara, director of criminal justice at the University of Hartford, believes such a campaign is unlikely to sway suburbanites about their perception of the crime rate in Hartford.
He added that city businesses that cater to the public should be very concerned.
“Most of my Rocky Hill neighbors express shock that I spend time in the north end of Hartford. Getting them to shop there will be impossible,” DiChiara said.
“I spend lots of time on Albany Avenue, often getting a bite to eat at Scott’s or checking out CDs with the street vendors. However, I am usually the only white person on the street, which is populated more by seedy looking young adults and some old people.”
He pointed out that the Route 44 Improvement Project is designed to draw shoppers by making parking easier and putting up cute lights and planters. “If sitting on the planter is a seedy drunk or if groups of youth gather under a light post, forget it,” he added.
Loitering and public drunkenness are among the quality of life issues that city residents are raising with Hartford police and city officials since the hit-and-run accident prompted neighborhood meetings.
Levin and DiChiara both point out that when police enforce quality of life ordinances, violent crime generally decreases and tourism increases, as evidenced in New York City during the 1990s.
Nelson ‘Oz’ Griebel, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, believes that the recent criminal events signal the need for city residents and the business community to strengthen their resolve and do things together to make the city and region better.
“We need to focus on doing things, not coming up with public relations hoopla,” Griebel said. “The concern I have, in terms of the rejuvenation, is more about the folks who don’t work in the city and don’t come back to the restaurants, events.”
Griebel also is alarmed that the hit-and-run accident could overshadow the multiple improvements in the city, such as the creation of the downtown Business Improvement District, or BID, which operates on-street cleaning services, ambassadors and security.
The security component of the BID is a spinoff of the downtown Hartford Guides, established nearly 20 years ago by Jodi Morneault, co-owner of clothing stores Tuesdays and Stackpole Moore Tyron on Trumbull Street.
“We have a wonderful service where we actually help people,” said Morneault, referring to the BID’s on-street ambassadors. She maintains that the delayed response to the hit-and-run accident could have happened in any U.S. city.
Levin agrees, noting that numerous studies have found that bystanders may not be apathetic, but rather, unsure what to do. Research has found that those with medical or self-defense training are most likely to help an injured stranger or defend a stranger being attacked on the street, he said.
“It’s an oversimplification to say people in Hartford don’t care,” Levin said. “It’s ridiculous. If people in Hartford don’t care, it is an indictment of all humanity.”
While more than 10 vehicles drove around the victim in the street immediately following the accident, two bystanders went to the victim’s aid within 60 seconds. According to the police, four 911 calls reported the accident within 60 seconds as well.
Key to mitigating the effect of the negative publicity is the residents’ efforts to get involved in partnerships with the police and city institutions to improve the city, and for police to enforce quality of life ordinances, Levin said. “A little fear to get local residents involved can do a world of good,” Levin said. “It’s sad it has to come from such a negative place. Sometimes it takes a horrendous act to galvanize an effective response. And I think that is what this is all about.”