New Haven’s Hunt for Policing Alternatives

Illustration by Robert Samec

“I want to burn down a police car,” S. told me, his body simmering with an anger I had never seen before.

S. is one of my closest friends, and one of the most collected people I know. S. is Black, but grew up outside the United States, and had admitted to never fully understanding race politics in America—a sentiment he still holds, to some extent. But the summer of 2020 was different.

I still remember the day clearly. It was May 31, 2020, and I had just joined S. at my first Black Lives Matter protest. A sea of over a thousand protesters had brought the I-95 highway to a halt, and were returning downtown to New Haven’s Police Department. Protesters joined millions of Americans in solidarity, responding with anger and defiance following the murders of the likes of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. But the Black Lives Matter protests in New Haven also had immediate local objectives, imagined in the context of New Haven’s own history of police violence. The names on thousands of protesters’ lips were Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, New Haven citizens shot by Yale and Hamden police in Hamden on April 16, 2019.

As the crowd gathered outside the New Haven Police Department, calls for Mayor Justin Elicker to appear grew louder. But Elicker never came out that day, despite the fact that he was rumored to be in the building. 

As protests grew larger with the turn of the month, the city administration was on the defensive. On June 16, with protesters gathered outside the New Haven Police Department, the city’s Board of Police Commissioners voted to terminate the contract of officer Jason Santiago, who was accused of using excessive force when dealing with an intoxicated man on Christmas Day, 2019. But City Hall did not budge further in those weeks, leaving many feeling betrayed and unsatisfied. Translating the energy on the streets into political change remains a challenging, frustrating task for many activists.

But the effects of the past summer will be long-lasting. S. and I are likely among hundreds of thousands who were once on the periphery of conversations about racial justice and police reform; four months later, we have learnt of terrible realities in startling new ways, and also of new conceptions of the future. During that infuriating, exhilarating, and exhausting month, S. was sucked into the politics of race in America in a way he had never experienced before—and never yet since. S. felt a fury that he realized was novel—what he now describes in his usual careful, semi-academic register as “a reservoir of affect that I didn’t know I had within me.” A few days later, S. even expressed the same arsonist desire to a supervisor at his World Bank internship.

Like S., I also identify as something of an immigrant to the US, and sometimes struggle to fully comprehend the contours of race politics in the United States. I’ve often found myself relying on the closest parallels I can find, like caste in India—a useful but ultimately limited comparison. In the past, S. and I often discussed how the category of race felt ever-present in the United States in a way we had not previously experienced. We are still trying to grapple with those questions. But in June, amidst a prolonged period of anger and despair around us, some of those blurry edges melted away. S. found himself sharing a sense of popular rage; I, at the very least, found myself willing to stand in solidarity, and bear witness to it. 

***

As the summer temperatures cooled, the energy around the Black Lives Matter movement in New Haven moved away from the streets and towards mobilizing for—and beyond—the November 2020 elections. My own thoughts also turned to the broader anti-fascist reckoning that November 3 might end up being. I developed an interest in the Black Lives Matter mobilizations as an example of organizing practices that one could imbibe in other activist circles, but the fundamental question of how organizers can translate energy into political change remained doggedly sticky. 

Then, a few weeks ago, while reporting for the New Haven Independent, I learnt of the City of New Haven’s pilot program for a Community Crisis Response Team. The Community Crisis Response Team is an initiative that few Yalies still seem to know about, and one I’d have little idea about myself had I not serendipitously stumbled upon it. In many ways, its story epitomizes the tension between organizing and politics, illuminating the possibilities and the limits of both spaces. 

Announced on August 18, 2020 by Mayor Justin Elicker, the Community Crisis Response Team is a new pilot program advanced by City Hall. At its helm are Dr. Mehul Dalal, the city’s Community Services Administrator (CSA), and Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, the Coordinator of Project Fresh Start, the city of New Haven’s re-entry program.

In simple terms, the Community Crisis Response Team seeks to identify a range of 911 calls that do not require a response from law enforcement and transfer them to the hands of social workers rather than police officers. According to Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo, the program seeks to center models of harm reduction rather than traditional strategies of law enforcement. Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo searched for alternative models across the country, eventually honing in on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program, a 24/7 mobile crisis intervention service in the Eugene-Springfield metro area of Oregon that has been implemented in the region for over three decades. 

Dalal noted that the strong public aversion to uniformed officers as first responders meant that the proposal had already convinced many. A few weeks ago, while presenting to the East Rock Community Management Team, he told the approximately two dozen East Rock residents that “the question is not whether we should do this, but how.”

The proposal, Dalal said, would give the city “the ability to respond to crises that did not obviously include some sort of criminal activity or a medical emergency, but was nevertheless routed through our 911 system, and respond to those incidents with appropriately qualified personnel that could deal with mental health crises, substance use disorders, and homelessness. Dealing with these issues requires a different skillset than those traditionally provided to law enforcement.” 

The scope of such a program, it appears, is not insignificant. Between July 2018 and June 2020, the New Haven Police Department received over 156,000 calls. But only 7,000 of them—approximately 4.4 percent of calls—pertained to incidents that are classified by the New Haven Police Department as “violent” crimes. 

For City Hall, the Community Crisis Response Team is the lowest-hanging fruit, a proposal that they hope will find support across the spectrum. It has quickly gathered momentum among stakeholders in New Haven’s policy-making circles. On September 14, 2020, less than a month after it was announced by Elicker, the New Haven Board of Alders unanimously voted to transfer over $100,000 in city funds towards the planning study for the Community Crisis Response Team. The proposal has been endorsed by New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes, as well as by multiple members of the Board of Alders, including East Rock Alder Charles Decker, who called the program “an idea whose time is well past due.”

The Community Crisis Response Team is an initiative that few Yalies still seem to know about, and one I’d have little idea about myself had I not serendipitously stumbled upon it. In many ways, its story epitomizes the tension between organizing and politics, illuminating the possibilities and the limits of both spaces.

Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo, who were on hand to present to the New Haven Board of Alders, have since taken their pitch to the Community Management Teams of the various neighborhoods that make up New Haven, hoping to gain community support for the program. They have also been deliberate in their advocacy, marketing the proposal as a common-sense approach that is acceptable to all parties. In large part, this has involved a balancing act—while City Hall wants to claim the proposal as a recognition of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) agitations over the summer, they are also keen to keep their distance from some of its language and demands.

Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo speak of the demands put forward by the BLM movement over the summer—both nationally and locally—as the “impetus” for the Community Crisis Response Team. “There was a call for a different approach to law enforcement nationwide, but we also had that same situation here in New Haven,” said Dalal in their interview with the Herald

This was in keeping with other statements from City Hall. When announcing the program, Mayor Elicker explained that the summer’s protests had inspired the Mayor’s office to take a more detailed look into policing. “This is part of a broader conversation in this country about what we must reckon with, and in particular about the criminalization of people of color, and in particular, Black men,” said Elicker. “Throughout our history, we’ve put an overemphasis on addressing societal problems with law enforcement… The goal of the Community Crisis Response Team is to ensure that the people with the right skills and the right experience provide the right care at the right time.” 

On the same day, police chief Otoniel Reyes, who threw his backing behind the program, admitted that the responsibilities placed upon police were excessive. His officers, he said, were “responding to situations we cannot arrest our way out of.” At the same time, Reyes made sure to clarify that the proposal “was not what defunding the police looks like.” 

In their interview with the Herald, Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo also steered clear of endorsing the calls made by activists to dismantle police entirely. “We see this program as something that works in tandem with law enforcement,” Dalal said. “And this encompasses things such as training police officers in de-escalation techniques. I see it as an opportunity to have all the systems, and, let’s be honest, these systems are not going away. ”

Although Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo’s proposal diverges from recent popular demands, it has nevertheless received interest from abolitionist organizers. For example, it has found mention in a recent document produced by the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY) titled “The Path to Abolition.” BSDY urged Yale to take note of the Community Crisis Response Team as evidence of a changing landscape, and urged Yale Police to move towards a differential response system to campus issues. In an email response to the Herald, BSDY explained their position on the Community Crisis Response Team: “The Community Crisis Response Team has the potential to be a step in the right direction of police abolition, but because the mayor has made clear that the program is not part of any plan to defund or abolish the New Haven Police Department, it is yet another method of lightly criticizing police while doing nothing to challenge their power.” 

BDSY also clarified that their support for the program would remain limited as long as the city administration continued to back the police. “There are community members of New Haven demanding for the NHPD to be abolished, just as there is nationwide call for police abolition, yet New Haven officials have created a program that admits police are not suited to deal with most community emergencies but still gives them the same funding and power,” BSDY said.

Founded in 2019 following the shootings of Paul Washington and Paul Witherspoon, BSDY represents a recent manifestation of a call for radical change to policing that has grown significantly louder in recent months and years. But as BSDY activists emphasize, calls for police reform in New Haven have a longer history of their own—one where New Haven activists outside Yale have been (and remain) central. 

Interestingly, however, BSDY was not alone in turning to the past. In their interview with the Herald, Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo explained that they seek to do the same, and hope that the lessons learnt from the past will offer them some guidance.

***

When Mehul Dalal took office as the Community Services Administrator for the City of New Haven in January 2020, the city administration was in the midst of a turbulent moment. Its experimental program, LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, an experimental pre-arrest diversion program that had sought to train law enforcement officials to work with community agencies, had just been shelved, following numerous critical reports and active opposition from multiple community members. 

Community organizers, in particular, were scathing in their criticism of LEAD. The Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), a coalition of local sex worker advocates, criminal justice reform activists, and Yale law and public health students, released a thirteen-page report that identified seven different criticisms of the program. One critique lambasted the presence of “clawback provisions” that often sent participants back to prison. Another pointed out the city administration’s own lack of transparency. A third concluded that “New Haven Is Excluding from LEAD the People Who Most Stand to Benefit.”

Dalal was not in office when LEAD was first put in place, but admitted that the city had failed in trying to import a program to New Haven with little contextual analysis. LEAD, borrowed from a flagship program of the same name in Seattle, was a program designed to “divert” sex workers and people abusing drugs from arrest, instead offering them help finding housing, job training, health care, drug treatment, and mental health support. The program received over $275,000 in funding, and Cornell Scott Hill Health Center was awarded a contract to run the program in tandem with the city administration. But a little more than two years since LEAD was put in place, the program was terminated, and was almost universally accepted as a failure. Dalal, in his new role as CSA, was tasked with sharing with the press details of just how poorly the program had failed. LEAD, he told the New Haven Independent, could count only six “successfully completed” diversions in over two years of its existence.

As the inquest began, different stakeholders who pushed for or participated in the program sought to shift the blame around. Police Chief Reyes, for example, claimed that the program was poorly designed to New Haven’s needs. He argued that New Haven, unlike Seattle, already had low rates of incarceration for drug- or sex work-related offences; as a result, the incentive to opt-in to LEAD programs remained minimal. Meanwhile, the public health specialists who designed the program argued that its failure was due to the police’s inability to change longstanding attitudes about the role of law enforcement in responding to crimes like substance abuse. 

For many organizers, this irony in LEAD’s failure struck deep. Like the Community Crisis Response Team, LEAD’s own genesis can be traced back to a moment of crisis—in this case, a police sting in October 2016 that led to the arrest of fourteen sex workers. 

The arrests were met with an immediate outcry. Protests were held outside City Hall in the weeks that followed, and the city administration eventually suspended sting operations on sex workers. In the face of public pressure against prevailing forms of policing, then-Mayor Toni Harp directed her administration to search for alternatives. The administration soon honed in on LEAD, a program that had been celebrated in Seattle for bringing in significant drop in recidivism while improving sex workers’ interactions with law enforcement. An eleven-person team from New Haven even flew to Seattle in Spring 2017, and returned confident that the city’s model was the right solution. LEAD was soon implemented in the city in Fall 2017, with the expectation that it would be a panacea for the city’s woes.

Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo hope to avoid committing the same mistakes. They are wary of searching for immediate band-aid solutions, pointing to the fact that the CAHOOTS program in Eugene took over three decades to perfect. “ It’s not something that we’re going to design a protocol and flip a switch, and it’s not going to work one hundred percent of the time. We’re gonna need a conscious, constant and continuous engagement between the service provider and our dispatchers and our first response system and the social service landscape.” 

They also believe that LEAD’s failures might illuminate the path forward for the Community Crisis Response Team to succeed. “In the same way that we’ve made a mistake with LEAD, taking a program that worked well in another locality and implementing it here, we want to be very careful and deliberate and intentional,” said Dalal. 

This also means that the city administration sees the transition as necessarily a gradual one. “At the early stages, we’ll be leaning much more on law enforcement or a fire department to either correspond to these calls or for a quick backup if needed. We do want to be very careful about what we send this team [the Community Crisis Response Team] into without that assistance at least,” said Dalal. Nevertheless, Dalal confirmed that the eventual goal of the program was to establish a subset of cases that could be responded to with no law enforcement at all—a notable point of divergence from LEAD, which continued to center law enforcement officers in their response.

For many organizers, this irony in LEAD’s failure struck deep. Like the Community Crisis Response Team, LEAD’s own genesis can be traced back to a moment of crisis—in this case, a police sting in October 2016 that led to the arrest of fourteen sex workers.

Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo also insisted that they are keen to engage with all stakeholders on the issue. The duo have been making the rounds presenting the proposal to the Community Management Teams of various neighbourhoods in New Haven. Dalal also extended the offer to Yale organizers, and urged them to keep the city accountable on its new initiative. “For those Yale students who feel passionately about police reform, racial justice and racial equality, it comes down to how your municipal, state and federal governments are funding and implementing programs,” he said. “If students want to be involved in advocacy for very specific programs and the funding of those programs, that would, of course be, very welcome.”

BSDY organizers explained to the Herald that their immediate conversations are directed at Yale, given its own lack of accountability to and communication with New Haven community organizers. But they also mentioned that they are cognizant of the ways in which their work learns from and is deeply connected to the work of New Haven activists, writing to the Herald that they “understand the intimacy of both efforts.” The shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon—committed by a joint patrol between YPD and Hamden police—underlie this statement.

BDSY also reiterated that they are concerned less by the incremental nature of the program and more by its unwillingness to take on the language of abolition in any way. “There is a difference between incremental reform of police—which does nothing to challenge the institution—and incremental steps to abolition that moves away from police. Abolition is a long process of investing in community, rebuilding social services, making life affordable, and dismantling all racist institutions of power. There are many steps in that process, but abolition has to be the ultimate commitment,” BDSY said in their response to the Herald

***

In mid-September, just days after Dalal and Sosa-Lombardo fielded questions from East Rock residents about the Community Crisis Response Team, residents from the neighborhood of Newhallville organized the painting of the first BLM mural in the city of New Haven. Newhallville is adjacent to East Rock, but is strikingly different—something I only fully comprehended this past summer, my first in New Haven. Its roads are narrower, houses smaller, and sidewalks less well maintained. It is also Black, and significantly more policed.

The mural was sponsored, in part, by the city of New Haven itself—a sign of how widespread the movement has become. But while the mural and its support from City Hall are powerful symbols, they also conceal an increasingly prevalent tension that the Community Crisis Response Team epitomizes: the channel—and, at times, the chasm—between the streets and the halls of politics. 

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