One night last week I was in a neighborhood near downtown Hartford after one of its residents was burglarized. The man came home to his apartment and found the front door broken. The burglars had taken his valuables and had rummaged through a purse on the sofa, he said, had found some car keys, had exited the apartment and had stolen the relevant car from the street.
The man — let's call him J. — called the city police at 9:30.
When I came upon J., it was after 10 p.m. He and one of his neighbors were waiting on the stoop for the cops. J. called again. And again. By about 10:30, one of his other neighbors tried phoning it in as a 911. There was an unsecured crime scene, she explained to the dispatcher. There were several single women living in the area. Nobody knew whether the criminals were still around.
The dispatcher seemed unimpressed.
By now there were four of us (and three dogs) outside trying to get J. some help. J. and I flagged down a Hartford cruiser assuming that he was responding to the call. No, said the cop. He was "in the middle of something."
There were state cops buzzing back and forth past the scene on their way to H barracks. Eventually, I flagged one of them down, and he said he would radio something in. He had passed the scene several times and, I think, was starting to feel bad about it.
Still, nothing happened. Now 90 minutes had passed since J.'s first call. It was a lovely warm night, and this part of town was very pretty and rather quiet. It was 11 p.m. Some of the neighbors were getting tired. I told J. I would stay out there until the police actually helped him.
The truth was, I was curious to see how long this was going to take, and I couldn't have slept if my life depended on it. My body was throbbing with adrenaline and indignation. I was ashamed for my city. J. had moved here from New York City a few months ago. One of the other guys on the street was a recent transplant from San Francisco. They had those get-me-outta-here looks that people get when they realize that delivery of local services in their new hometown occasionally falls slightly below the standards of, say, Harare.
J. was trying to figure out what he should do.
With the deadbolt broken on his door, it didn't seem safe to stay in his apartment. He also didn't think he could leave until the police arrived.
As the minutes ticked by, we saw several cop cars pass. Some state. Some city. Some stopped. Some didn't. Around 11, J. flagged down another cruiser, a two-man unit. They were not responding to his crime. In fact, they said, they were heading back to the station for shift change. It had been a busy night, they said. Shootings.
J., who never lost his composure all night, explained that he and his neighbors had called more than five times. The ensuing conversation resembled Samuel Beckett more than it did Joseph Wambaugh.
You should call again, one cop in the car told him.
Who should he call? I asked, looking into the cruiser window.
The police, the cop said.
There was a pause.
But you're the police, I told them.
Why wouldn't telling you be enough? Aren't you going to make them send somebody to help this guy?
Yes, we are, they said.
But we should call anyway?
Even though we've already called many times?
And they drove away.
And I thought: This is where I live. I live in a city where the police tell you to call the police.
I live in Gotham City, but there's no Batman.
At 11:30 p.m., almost exactly two hours from the first call, a cruiser showed up with two uniformed officers. They were polite. For the first time all night, somebody actually apologized to J. for his long wait.
On the other hand, they were misinformed about the crime. They had been told it was a simple auto theft. They didn't know about the burglary. This was kind of mind-boggling, given the number of times people had phoned in the burglary.
J., still self-composed, explained that not only had he phoned in the burglary, but he had reported it in person twice to city cops we flagged down. And once to a state cop. The state cop, J., told them, was probably the most helpful person he had spoken to all night.
Yeah, they said, but the state cops can't do anything in this situation.
Wait, I said. I thought the governor and the mayor arranged for the state cops to augment you guys this summer.
The city cops gave me a look, and I realized I was just a guy standing there on the street at 11:30 p.m. making trouble. I was not the vic. So I shut up.
Shortly before midnight, I left the neighborhood, driving west. Crews were resurfacing the highway, so I hooked around through Asylum Hill, cutting across on Forest Street, passing young men walking through the darkness in gang colors.
This is a scary freakin' city, I thought.
About a day passed. I got an e-mail from a woman who lives a few blocks away from me. This is a tough young woman, very committed to city life. A few weeks ago, a pedestrian in her neighborhood had his wallet taken at gunpoint. The gun was a 9mm Glock.
The subject line was: "do you stay or flee from a city that often scares you?"
The e-mail read: "horrible beating of a man last night across the street from my house last night. ... does the courant even cover cop activity anymore? i'm at a loss. ..."
I know, I know, I know.
I'm moving in two weeks.
I tell myself I have to move because of family matters, but underneath that, I'm grateful for the excuse. I've been in the city for five years, this stint, and I'm worn out. I'm jittery. I love the city, but so does Nick Carbone, and some young men damn near killed him earlier this summer in broad daylight.
After the Carbone attack a man from Vernon wrote a letter to this newspaper. He commutes to Hartford by bus. Twice in 2007, while trying to catch his bus, he was attacked by groups of roaming kids. The first time is was 4 p.m. Broad daylight. He wound up going to Rockville to get his head stitched. He went to the Hartford police station a few days later. The police declined even to write up a report. The second time, he was hit in the head half a block from where I live. A passerby phoned 911. After half an hour, the man gave up and went home.
I know this column will feed a problem. It does a disservice to the many, many decent people trying to make a life in this city. I know that vicious and malevolent commenters online will take my column and use it to call Hartford a hell full of worthless animals. I also know that, when I move, the tiny number of journalists living in Hartford will get even smaller, and that's wrong because you really do need to live here in order to feel this stuff in your bones.
I know, I know, I know.
But this city feels like it's coming apart. At the moment, I'd give Baghdad better odds. Maybe I'm just having a bad week.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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