I'm having a breakfast sandwich at Rajun Cajun on Friday, and a nice man with a West Indian accent is bending my ear about the city. Then, he mentioned a young Hartford police officer he met, an African American man from Waterbury, whose impression about Keney Park was that it was "dangerous."
I could have sworn a siren sounded. Maybe because I was so alarmed that one of the city's new protectors already had such a false perception of one of Hartford's underplayed assets.
Anyone who has ever visited Keney to golf, watch cricket, play basketball or fire up a grill knows that it is safe.
Unless you're patronizing the park after dark, there is simply no reason to be in fear.
The young officer's impression frames a question I've been raising this week with folks plugged into Hartford. Has the exodus of veteran city police officers in the past five years resulted in new blood that, while bringing more energy, has no real pulse on the community?
There have been 170 retirements or resignations since 2003. By the start of 2009, 54 new officers will be added to the 413-member force.
Statistics were not available on the city's closure rate of cases in past years, but two recent high-profile incidents — the beat-down of former Deputy Mayor Nick Carbone and the hit-and-run incident that left resident Angel Arce Sr. paralyzed — are unresolved.
Steve Harris, a retired fire captain and city councilman, has two relatives who were victims of homicides within the past three years — and those cases, too, are unresolved. The HPD has a history of frayed relations with many neighborhoods. With an influx of dozens of new officers, it's going to take awhile to develop trust and street sources.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Marilyn Rosetti, executive director of the HART neighborhood group. "I'm glad for some of the newer people. We have police in our office sometimes and they're just coming in to talk and get a feel, instead of thinking we're the enemy and they know everything."
Julio Mendoza, who heads the Spanish American Merchants Association, said he's also seen improved rapport between the police and his constituents. Police and SAMA meet once a month at the organization's headquarters to discuss safety issues. Park Street was once identified as one of the city's emerging gateways. It is more notoriously known these days as a place where an older man was ravaged by a speeding vehicle and no one stopped to help.
"The police department is doing the best it can as far as we're concerned," said Mendoza, referring to the monthly follow-up with merchants. "They've been working very closely with us here on Park Street. The rapport is excellent. The problem is there is a shortage."
That's been the convenient excuse when it comes to solving crimes in Hartford — staffing. I'm still not buying it.
Rarely does anyone question if there is a deployment problem or whether the community relationship problem has been so sour that it silenced street sources.
Assistant Chief Neil Dryfe doesn't deny that "the department as a whole loses something" when there are substantial losses of experienced cops.
But, Dryfe insists, there is no indication that an influx of new officers has compromised the ability to resolve cases.
Like cooking a good stew, patience will be needed as the seasoning takes hold within the HPD.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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