Entrepreneur Yvon Alexander is in the Hartford nightclub business. So, you know how he feels about the city's recruiting blitz to hire 80 new officers by next year, swelling the ranks to 480.
Increasing patrols at night when the bars and clubs close, Alexander said, will help bolster Hartford's efforts to pitch itself as an entertainment destination.
"More is always better," said Alexander, owner of Uptown Vibz nightclub, off Main Street. "I think the visibility can't hurt. And if, in fact, you have more officers on the streets, it gives the perception that the streets are safer."
The quest for police recruits comes at a time when the city's population of about 128,000 reflects modest growth and when both Mayor Eddie Perez and Police Chief Daryl Roberts boast of reductions in crime this year.
The problem is this: No one's ever proved that Hartford's crime problems were connected to a police "staffing" issue - it's a notion that gained legs, but was rarely challenged.
I've always thought the city's haphazard response to crime was more a management problem and a deployment issue. Hartford is only 18 square miles, and it already employs 400 police officers - a small army. It should be an eminently manageable city.
Yet, with every spurt of violence, there's the convenient refrain that the department is "understaffed." Eight years ago, a Virginia-based law enforcement management consultant assessed the dysfunctional department, which was authorized to have up to 475 sworn officers.
Carroll Buracker & Associates said the ranks were bloated and needed to be downsized - but the report also found that for all that force, not enough officers were on the streets.
Police data from what were supposed to be "service calls" from citizens were padded with officer meal breaks and bathroom stops to justify the staffing budget. Overtime was being abused, Buracker's report suggested, and officers were not solving crimes in a timely manner.
Yes, the word "scathing" comes to mind in describing the report.
Some of the Hartford police management at the time scoffed at Buracker's assessment. But the 1999 report has me wondering if the $1.7 million investment in hiring this many additional cops is excessive. Obviously, the city's growth is hamstrung by crime in its neighborhoods and the perception that it is an unsafe city. One reason to support beefed-up police ranks is that it will spare us the excuses about staffing when the next episode of violence erupts.
Roberts, who completed his first year as police chief, said the HPD is a much different operation than in 1999. There's a stronger commitment to community policing, including foot, bike and, soon, mounted police. Crime is fickle, but perceptions, the chief says, have a longer shelf life.
"People feel safer when there are more police officers present," Roberts said Tuesday. "It also sends a message to criminals that we're not going to tolerate crime. It's very important to have a strong police presence, and it goes a long way with building positive relationships with the community."
The Hartford Police Department is in the midst of a major transition. New police chief. More than 150 new cops over the past three years. A spanking new public safety building is planned for downtown in a few years. Grizzled cops with street contacts and institutional memory are retiring. Rookie cops looking to make their mark are coming aboard.
The new HPD Blue - albeit green - needs to be hitting the streets.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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