August 27, 2000

August 27, 2000 | Commentary on Crime

Policing in Hartford: It's a Crime

If Hartford's leaders want tips on how to reform their city's troubled police department, they may want to consider hitting I-91 for the 90 minutes or so it takes to get to Stamford. Both cities are about the same size and share a number of other characteristics - yet crime is dropping in Stamford even as it climbs in Hartford.

Recent crime statistics show a 16.5 percent decline in Stamford for the first part of 2000 and a 13 percent rise for Hartford. Stamford police chief Dean Esserman, a 42-year-old lawyer who never walked a police beat before his appointment in February 1998, saw crime fall nearly a quarter during his first year in office - the largest drop in any city east of the Mississippi.

U.S. cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000 have reduced crime about 13 percent since 1997. (Hartford has about 135,000 residents; Stamford 110,000.) When the changes in crime from early 2000 are taken into account, Hartford's crime rate is down only about 5 percent for that period, while Stamford's is down about 40 percent.

If current trends hold, Stamford's criminals will commit 25 offenses per 1,000 citizens this year, while Hartford's will commit 80. In almost every category, Stamford is improving, while Hartford is getting worse. For example, Stamford had 11 rapes during the first half of 2000, compared to 16 during the same period in 1999. By contrast, Hartford's 28 rapes in the first half of 2000 already exceed the 20 committed in all of 1999.

Why the difference? It's not money. Stamford has more wealthy residents than Hartford, but its police coffers don't overflow. Hartford actually has more police officers per capita than Stamford (four per 1,000 residents versus Stamford's three) and a larger civilian support staff. Stamford also hasn't invested heavily in technology: Veteran officers complain that the police radio system doesn't work in certain parts of town; department leaders lack e-mail accounts; and many police officers still do their reports on typerwriters.

And it's not as if Stamford is a naturally safer place. Crackhouses once dominated its inner city, and its police officers once seemed helpless against rising burglary rates.

So what is Chief Esserman doing right? For one thing, he rejects conventional wisdom about how to run a police department. The traditional view holds that police officers are largely hourly-rate, blue-collar laborers. They work for a set numbers of hours and then go home, leaving the crooks behind for the next shift to pick up. But other professionals, such as doctors and CEOs, work overtime as a matter of course. Esserman asked his commanders to emulate these professionals.

"I looked at who the real leaders were in the department, and it turned out that it was the lieutenants," he told me in a interview. "So I set them free. I let them build the organizations themelves. I gave them take-home cars, take-home computers and take-home phones. In return, I told them to take their problems home, too." Instead of giving commanders responsibility for crime during a particular time of day, Stamford's commanders have 24-hour responsibility over entire sections of town.

Another innovation was Esserman's handling of his regional commanders. Many police forces, Hartford's included, have regional commanders. But unlike Stamford, they don't give regional commanders as much trust or hold them as accountable. Stamford's weekly command staff meetings, modeled on a New York City program, give department brass a chance to grill regional commanders and guarantee better results. (Ironically, Hartford was one of the first mid-sized cities to develop these meetings - under Chief Joseph Croughwell - but by late 1999 the meetings had stopped.)

Esserman is also recasting the way "community policing" is handled. Popular theory holds that departments need special "grin-and-wave" squads that run children's activities and address community groups, while leaving the dirty work of arresting criminals to "real cops." Stamford still has some cops like that, but Esserman is phasing this philosophy out by asking every officer to both make arrests and do community work. The "grin-and-wave" squads now respond to area commanders like everyone else.

It's true that Stamford has made some innovations that Hartford would be hard pressed to imitate. Corporate and foundation support, for example, lets Stamford's summer camp pay high-school students $10 an hour to work as counselors - and Hartford's corporate and non-profit base is weaker than Stamford's. But most of Esserman's policies could be easily adapted. Hartford's next chief should consider making an 80-mile road trip to pick up some pointers.

Eli Lehrer is a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute.

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