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Monday, May 12, 2008

Random acts of violence link a tale of two city neighborhoods

It isn’t often that people from “both sides of the tracks” or in this case, both sides of the hill, sit down together to air their concerns, hopes and fears.
But it happened Monday night. The setting was a crowded cafeteria at Celentano School, which sits on the edge of Prospect Hill, the dividing line between New Haven’s wealthy East Rock neighborhood and the much-less-wealthy Newhallville.
The meeting was called because six days earlier on Loomis Place, a block of affluent residents, a 55-year-old woman named Julia O’Sullivan was attacked in a kitchen by three young males.
They beat her over the head and broke her hands with a baseball bat, then tied her up and ransacked the house. After they fled in her car, she managed to free herself and call police.
Shortly afterward, Yale University police officers, working with city police, located her car on Dixwell Avenue and arrested a suspect nearby. A few days later, city police arrested a second youth; a third is still being sought.
I live three blocks from that house on Loomis Place. I was as stunned as my neighbors to think of such a vicious crime taking place so close to us.
The term “home invasion” is now part of our lexicon. The phrase took hold last summer when two men got into the Petit home in Cheshire and killed two girls and their mother. This led to reinforced house locks and new alarm systems.
Here we go again. Nobody died this time, but the seeming randomness of this latest invasion and the brutality of the attack, took many of us back to images of Cheshire.
How can we feel safe in our homes? What can we do to protect ourselves? These were the two questions that dominated the meeting in that cafeteria.
Acting Police Chief Stephanie Redding faced 100 anxious, angry residents. She handled the situation with aplomb, delivering reality checks.
“We are not going to police our way out of this,” she said. “We have arrested and arrested and arrested. Things are changing. I can’t cover the whole city for every call that comes in. The phone is ringing all day.”
Redding told us the city is caught in a brutal double whammy: Younger criminals and the re-entry onto our streets of older guys who have just been released from prison.
“We are seeing younger kids who are violent,” she noted. “There are a lot more guns.”
She added, “There can’t be enough police to be surrogate parents. The police can’t do it alone.”
Redding acknowledged the police force is now down to 397 although the city is budgeted for 496, in part because Mayor John DeStefano Jr. last year asked the Board of Aldermen to increase the total from an allowed-for total of about 440. She said there is ongoing recruiting and new officers coming in from the training academy.
When residents complained about the low number of police officers, Redding told them solving the crime problem “goes beyond having lots of police.”
And she said she must put the cops where the major crime level requires their presence. “We deploy based on human needs, not property.”
Although there was plenty of fear in the cafeteria from the East Rock folks, she said, “This area has been lucky. It’s a lower-crime area. What happened on Loomis Place is not the norm.”
When a Loomis Place resident told Redding she regularly sees and hears teenagers hanging out across the street at the Foote School at night, it sounded worrisome. But when the people from “the other side” rose and started describing their problems, the East Rockers started to realize what it’s like to live in a high-crime area.
“I live on Newhall Street,” a woman said. Noting the ongoing shootings near her home, she added, “I don’t know whether to get in the bed or on the floor at night.”
“They’re driving up like they’re going to Dairy Queen,” she said of the drug dealers.
“Step over onto the other side of the hill,” she invited the East Rockers. “You’ve got everyday stuff looking at your face.”
She said if she complains to the drug dealers, they tell her, “What are you saying? What do you mean we can’t be on the corner? Who are you?”
The woman added, “I’m not going to call the police anymore because I don’t want to live in fear.”
As the meeting broke up, Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards urged all residents to communicate. “We all have to do it together. Find a way to connect the streets.”
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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