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Hope Is A Uniformed Cop Flipping Burgers

August 14, 2005
By RITU KALRA, Courant Staff Writer

A dozen children playing basketball on the street. Parents and grandparents watching from the shade of their front porches. Neighbors standing in line on the sidewalk for barbecued hot dogs. A makeshift stage in the middle of the block, blasting music through the neighborhood.

Except for the six police officers standing in full uniform flipping burgers behind the grill, the scene had the makings of any other summer block party.

But on the section of Martin Street between Judson and Nelson streets in Hartford's North End, Saturday's daylong festivities were not the normal summer ritual. Sponsored jointly by community leaders and the Hartford police, the outdoor block party was both a celebration and a prayer.

"Everybody on Martin Street is not selling drugs," said the Rev. Donald Johnson, director of the HOPE Street Ministries anti-violence group, which helped sponsor the event. "Everybody on Martin Street is not carrying guns. There are some good things that come out of Martin Street. When this street belongs to everybody, that's what's going to restore this community."

Johnson's ministry began in 2001 after a spate of violence prompted him and two colleagues to begin preaching from the sidewalk with a megaphone. When the Johnson-Stewart Community Center opened on the street last year, the ministry moved in.

After several shootings in Hartford this year, city police launched an initiative to increase police presence in troubled neighborhoods. That, coupled with the work of the community center, has not eliminated crime, but has fostered a greater sense of calm among residents.

"The kids were just out here fighting last night," said Crystal Hampton, a Martin Street resident of 10 years. "But since the police have been here, the shooting has cut down a lot."

"I'm just happy the police are out here now. Otherwise you're scared to walk outside," Hampton said as she waited for her 9-year-old stepson to bring her a hamburger.

For Deputy Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts, the neighborhood patrols have played a vital role in building trust between police and residents.

"If we patrol Martin Street, [the criminals] move two blocks over. They relocate. But now the mothers will call us when their kids have been out all night long. They wouldn't call before," Roberts said. "People feel more comfortable with us now."

Indeed, residents called to him by name throughout the afternoon and there were few whose first names he didn't know.

"My mother raised eight boys by herself. I'm a product of this very environment," Roberts said as he reached out to hug or shake hands with residents. "I try to be a role model. We're here on a Saturday, we're cooking burgers. When people see us today, they see us as human beings. That's what community policing is all about," he said.

In the weeks since the initiative began, the number of shootings in the North End has dropped by nearly 80 percent, according to a recent Hartford police report.

David Milner, who lives in the neighborhood, said he has noticed a difference, not only in the frequency of shootings, but in the caliber of the guns.

"You can tell a high-caliber shot by the way it echoes. You can tell the semi-automatics," Milner said. "Now there's a lot less fireworks going on. So they're definitely getting the most dangerous firearms off the street."

Still, turning the community around will take time. People no longer tear through the neighborhood at 80 mph, some mothers said Saturday, but children still sell drugs on the street late at night.

Others said they were grateful the situation had improved, but were afraid the police presence would not be sustained. And while they were glad to know the sergeants and the deputies by name, they said it was the officers who walk the streets with whom they still need to develop relationships.

"The beat cop is a great idea. But it helps if the faces we see become familiar. Not the uniform. We need the faces. The uniform presence is good but we need to know them by name if it's going to really change this neighborhood," Milner said.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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