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Too Late For Hartford To Stem Violence?

Helen Ubiñas

August 17, 2008

"Oh, no ma'am," the Helena-West Helena, Ark., police chief says in a Southern drawl that makes me think I should be wearing cowboy boots for this conversation.

"We most certainly do not have the same issues as you folks up there."

In fact, Chief Fred Fielder bluntly continues, the desire to not turn into another Hartford is why the law in this small town on the banks of the Mississippi is coming down hard on thugs playing shoot-'em-up in their neighborhoods.

After a reader directed me to the story about the town trying everything it can — round-the-clock curfew, Robocop weaponry — to quell violence, I thought a call there might offer some perspective, maybe a few new solutions.

True, the town's much smaller, 15,000, and — so far anyway — their criminals seem to be pretty bad shots. Except for a close call when a bullet pierced the wall of a young child's room and shattered a mirror, no one's been killed.

Could be because, in addition to the curfew, officers are armed with military rifles, night-vision goggles and zero apologies for stopping anyone coming in and out of the troubled neighborhoods to ask, all polite-like, just what business they have there.

If it feels and sounds like a police state, so be it, says Fielder. Despite warnings by the ACLU, residents are clear: They want the violence to stop — no matter the cost.

There comes a point, Fielder says, when it's too late for the law to gain control. In my parting column a year ago today, I wrote that my biggest fear about returning to Hartford from a yearlong fellowship in California was that nothing would have changed.

Same inept leadership. Same violence. Same empty promises that change was just around that burglarized bodega on Albany Avenue, that stolen car on Greenfield. Those seven people shot at the annual West Indian Day Parade.

Well, the city changed all right: It actually got worse.

Up until the parade turned into a bloodbath last Saturday, Mayor Eddie Perez and his apostles inexcusably overlooked the increases in crimes that people care about to blindly tout that crimes against motor vehicles were down. At a press conference Monday, El Jefe and Co. blamed the state quickly and often for the city's troubles.

The state absolutely needs to step up its involvement in its capitol city. But before 7-year-old Tyrek Marquez was shot in the head and 15-month-old Zeniyah Jackson was shot in the leg, there was a crucial moment for this administration to finally deal honestly with the reality that culminated in such chaos last Saturday.

Even 3,000 miles away in California, the words Police Chief Daryl Roberts uttered in June in response to a 78-year-old city man being mowed down on Park Street, former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone nearly being beaten to death and the discovery of a badly decomposed body of a man in the basement of his family's home, grabbed my attention.

The city, Roberts said back then, has a toxic relationship with itself.

Finally. Finally, I thought, someone speaks the truth. The kind of unrehearsed, uncomfortable truth necessary to, potentially anyway, jump-start change, to force residents and leaders to take stock of themselves and of a community that preys upon its most devoted and vulnerable.

But then the chief backed off. And "The Gospel of Perez" went into full Hallelujah-mode when 911 calls made when Angel Arce was hit by the car were released in an effort to show how much heart Hartford has.

Pretty pathetic that a handful of calls count as heart around here. Especially when real heart would have been someone exhibiting the basic human compassion it would have taken just one person to sit with this man who lay broken on the street, to hold his hand, to tell him he wasn't alone.

But that's another truth we're uncomfortable with, isn't it? The people in this city are on their own. And city officials' reaction continues to be to close ranks, kill the messenger and skew the message.

Call it spin. Call it keeping things positive.

I call it something else: lies. Because when you insist crime is down even though crimes that people care about are up, that's a form of lying.

When you never once question your own role in all of this insanity — has anyone heard the mayor or the chief say that perhaps they need to be a doing a better job? — that's a lie.

And when you aggressively ignore your obligation to call things as they are — politics and popularity be damned — that, Mr. Mayor and all who spread his "gospel," is the colossal lie that helped create the chaos that crashed down on the city and on children too young for the battle scars they now wear.

It was tempting to think that maybe a trip to Arkansas was in order as I listened to Chief Fielder report that residents are finally getting up from their floors and sleeping on their beds again, children are safely playing on the streets.

But then I visited Talecia Francis, whose 15-month-old daughter, Zeniyah Jackson, was shot in the leg at the West Indian Day Parade. Thankfully, Zeniyah didn't suffer any permanent damage and was happily walking around her front yard, her mouth smeared with ice cream.

Francis made a chilling observation. Besides the sight of blood dripping from her baby's stroller, the other thing she remembers from that day was how well policed the parade was. There were cops everywhere, she said.

Cops everywhere, and criminals weren't afraid to shoot round after round of bullets into the crowd. Cops everywhere, and still no arrests.

And then I remembered something else Fielder said when we talked about the frightening tipping point that inevitably comes when lawlessness goes unchecked for too long.

It might be, his Southern drawl getting thicker as if in an attempt to soften the blow, that Hartford has reached that point.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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