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Fighting Crime In New Haven

Rick Green

August 22, 2008

I asked New Haven Police Chief James Lewis how making a big deal out of the losers arrested for patronizing prostitutes in New Haven has anything to do with the wave of youth violence gripping his city.

Like Hartford, New Haven has been saturated with teenage boys and young men shooting guns. But the other day, New Haven cops and Lewis called a press conference and made a big deal out of an operation that featured officers posing as prostitutes in a sting they called "Dear John: You're arrested."

It netted a dozen low-level prostitution arrests and some highly public disgrace for the accused perps.

Although I like checking the names on the police blotter as much as anyone, I missed the dramatic point.

Isn't the real issue in New Haven and Hartford kids who are shooting each other?

"It's absolutely connected," Lewis explained when I visited with him in New Haven, where's he's been on the job for a little over a month.

Outing the johns has everything to do with armed teenagers shooting people in his new city, he said. There is a "general lawlessness" that has seeped in and become accepted.

"There were 18 shootings in 15 days before I got here," he said. "We had 80 people hit by gunfire in the first six months of the year."

Lewis served as chief in Bakersfield, Calif., and more recently in the Los Angeles County city of Pomona before arriving earlier this summer. His real home, however, is Green Bay, Wisc., a place where he said he learned about the relationship between civility and law enforcement.

"Fourteen- and 15-year-olds carrying guns on bicycles," Lewis told me, shaking his head about what he's seen here. "I didn't see that in L.A."

Welcome to Connecticut, chief.

So Lewis is returning to an old tradition the police blotter. Most people know that arrest logs are fair game for anyone police departments have been handing them out for generations. Newspapers, in turn, have published them, naming names, printing pictures and telling the world.

Making a big deal out of the small things is a way you begin to retake control, Lewis said. He plans to emphasize the arrests for prostitution, street corner drug dealing, out-of-control driving and other offenses like kids racing around on all-terrain vehicles.

Tolerate this sort of crime and "it sends a reverse message to the kids that everything is OK."

"People are living in neighborhoods where it has become blurred between what is right and what is wrong," he said. "All we are doing here is we are focusing on the issues."

"What we are trying to do is just get the community's attention," Lewis said. "We've got 14- and 15-year-olds robbing people and shooting people."

We agreed that the problem runs far deeper than merely rounding up the criminals. Children aren't in school. Parents are absent or non-existent. Guns are prevalent.

You have to start somewhere.

At last week's press conference, New Haven handed out the mug shots and home addresses of the accused to the media. Lewis promised that if television and newspapers didn't pick up the story, the city would buy newspaper ads and publish the pictures.

The dozen or so johns were from New Haven and surrounding communities, the kind of black, white and Hispanic perpetrators that fill up a city's arrest log every day. I saw a similar collection when I went online and looked at Hartford's daily arrest log, which is posted on the police department website.

This cop from Los Angeles told me that the lawlessness he's found in educated and affluent Connecticut has been a bit of a surprise.

"The message should be there are certain parameters of conduct," Lewis said. Unless leaders make clear what is acceptable, "you are going to just get the feeling that the police just don't care."

"There is a level of civility that we should have in our communities. You should be able to walk down your street without being propositioned. You shouldn't have to step on hypodermic needles," Lewis said.

No, you shouldn't. You've got to start somewhere.

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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