New Haven's Top Cop: 'You Don't Know Us Anymore'

After four years on the job, Dean Esserman sketches his vision for a return to community-based policing.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

What if more cops walked a beat?

Dean Esserman, the chief of police in New Haven, Connecticut, wants to find out. At a criminal-justice reform conference* earlier this month, he explained that he has been assigning all rookie police officers to daily foot patrols on the same blocks––and that in doing so, he is being true to both the history of policing in the United States and his father’s career as a doctor who made house calls in his neighborhood.

The details are engaging.

And overall, he conveys a vision of law enforcement as it is conceived by advocates of community-based policing. Before I present his case at greater length, a bit of context is useful. New Haven is a high-crime city. It is also home to Yale, and Esserman is a guest lecturer at Yale Law School. He has been profiled favorably in the Yale Daily News, as in this article about a protest related to Ferguson, Missouri, when he ordered officers to refrain from deploying force against students.

Here’s a slightly condensed version of his words:

In 2011, New Haven celebrated its 150th anniversary as a police department. We're one of the oldest police departments in the nation. The problem is we've been policing in New Haven for more than 250 years. So did we get the math wrong because, unlike my sister, we didn't go to Yale?

What I've come to learn after being a police chief for 25 years in four American cities is that we lost our way. We don't know our own history. But our history has a lot to do with who we are and where I think we need to head.

Before there were police there were constables. And before there were constables there was the night watch. Originally, the police were the citizens that night who were just chosen to walk the street, with a bell, a staff, and a lantern, and look out for the community. The next night another citizen did that job. And no one was paid. It was a caretaker job.

Later, night watchmen became constables, and they got paid. Later still they got trained. And only 100 years later did they become organized police departments. So the truth is that we always were a part of the community.

We were actually community members.

But the average American police officer doesn't know that history. They don't connect to that history. They connect to the uniform. They connect to the distance and the professionalism and the apartness. So we're trying to return to that. And I think America has been grappling with this constantly redefined definition of community policing for a generation now.

I tell the story this way.

My father was the love of my life. He was an old fashioned doctor in New York. He didn't make a lot of money. All us kids knew to take messages at home, and after dinner my father would make house calls. And if you said, "Who is the neighborhood doctor?" or "Who is your family doctor?" it was my father, Paul Esserman, in our neighborhood in New York City.

I learned my policing that way. Because right now if you ask people, "Who is your family cop?" they say,"I don't have a cop in the family." They think you mean someone who took the civil service test. In New Haven we're challenging that. What we're doing is going toward that model where your neighborhood cop is like my old neighborhood's doctor.

In New Haven, we're the only city in America where, when you graduate the police academy, everybody walks a beat for a year. It doesn't matter who you are. Everybody walks their same beat every day. And I wear a uniform everyday and I walk a beat every week myself.

Every month or two, I bring these young rookies into my conference room alone with the door closed. And we go around the room and I say, “Tell me a story.” I've been doing this now for the four years that I've been chief in New Haven. And the stories are always the same. The first week it's a quiet walk. Everybody is kind of eyeballing you and you're eyeballing everybody. By the end of the month you can't get down the block without a half-a-dozen conversations and honking their horns. People know your children's names and you know their children's names.

They know your days off.

By the second or third month I almost always hear this story:

Chief, you gotta explain this to me, I don't get it. I've walked this beat everyday with my partner for three months. And I say hello to this lady every morning. Yesterday, she asked me if I could stay a minute. She wanted to talk. She told me something horrendous had happened to her three or four months ago. I said, Ma'am, why didn't you tell me then? She said, "Because I didn't know you then, officer."

And that's when the moment of insight occurs. That's why I do something crazy like give my cops cell phones. I know people who don't believe in organized medicine, but they believed in my father as their doctor. I know people who don't believe in the organized church, and believe that Dan Brown books about the scandals in the Vatican are all true. But they believe in their parish priest. I know people who don't believe in Congress––it seems everybody––but they believe in their Congressman. What we're realizing is that we're in the relationship business.

The only way you get past that barrier of a uniform or skin color is through relationships. So we have people who don't believe in the New Haven police department, and God knows they don't believe in the chief of police.

But they believe in their cop. That's what we're going back to––we're going back to a cop that has to earn their trust in the neighborhood, and that takes time. We're going back to when the community embraces their officer. Not necessarily their department, but the person they know.

I'll close with this story. I have three children who are my life, which is why I have three jobs. And my oldest graduated college. If you knew him you'd be as proud and as amazed as me. He got a job in Washington, D.C., which I've come to learn, because I've avoided it my whole life, is the nation's most dangerous city, right, politically and otherwise. When he graduated I bought him a bicycle, because I'm an honest police chief, and I couldn't afford to buy him a car. About the third or forth week someone clipped the chain on the bannister and stole his bike. Who do you think is the first person that my son called? Me. Now how is it that the son of an American police chief wouldn't have the instinct to call 911? If the son of an American police chief wouldn't have the instinct to call 911, why do we think anyone else does? Reality is, you call who you know. And you don't know us anymore.

We've become strangers in the community. It's why we've been ordered to wear numbers on our badges and why we have to wear our name on our uniforms. It's by court orders. My hope is, one day, to come full circle. When someone asks some citizen in New Haven, who is your family cop, who is your neighborhood cop, they're gonna know I don't mean that they have a cop in the family who took the civil service test.

I mean the officer on your beat, like my father was the neighborhood doctor. That's going back to where we began, when it was a citizen who had the duty for the night. We are not the military. We are not an army in occupation. There is no national American police force and there never will be.

There's just thousands of local police forces and what we have to do is take it one step farther, and make it thousands and thousands of local police cops.  

If this vision of policing resonates, but you live in a city that’s less walkable than New Haven or as extremely spread out as Los Angeles, one question is whether the benefits of rookie officers walking a beat can be derived in some other way. For those interested in the whole panel with Esserman and others, watch here.

* The event, “Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety,” was convened in New Orleans by the Charles Koch Institute, where I spoke on a “Criminal Justice and the Press” panel with Scott Henson of the Texas Innocence Project and Reihan Salam, an editor at National Review and Literary Brooklyn’​s favorite conservative.