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Monday, June 23, 2008

Police prepare to kick off Project Restart

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Police officials are preparing to kick off its adaptation of the High Point Initiative, an unconventional crime fighting strategy that in the end gives criminals a choice of going to jail or getting a job.
The city calls it Project Restart.
Police expect to start in about a month the undercover drug investigations that serve as the foundation for the effort. Right now, police are selecting the neighborhood in which to focus the pilot, and are compiling a list of the known players to target, police said.
"This is different than traditional narcotics enforcement. The traditional narcotics enforcement is good. We’ll move back toward that... but this is different, and trying something different is good," said Acting Chief Stephanie Redding.
Last year, former Police Chief Francisco Ortiz Jr. and other city officials visited High Point, N.C., to observe its program in action.
New Haven received a $164,000 federal grant to fund it, and the city has tapped Teny Gross, a Providence, R.I., urban youth mediator, to conduct local training. Providence police modeled a program there after the High Point effort.
Gross runs a street outreach worker program in Providence on which New Haven modeled a similar program, another initiative aimed at reducing violent street violence.
The High Point Initiative garnered national attention because of its unorthodox methods, at least by traditional policing standards.
It starts with undercover drug cases, where investigators build criminal cases against multiple targets, in most cases complete with surveillance photos and undercover buys. Officers then draft arrest warrant affidavits, but that’s when the process deviates from convention.
Instead of arresting suspects, the department summons them for a group meeting. Based on the High Point model, targets are assembled in a room, often with pictures of them engaged in illegal activity posted throughout the room. They’re shown unsigned arrest warrants and tough talking state and federal prosecutors explain penalties they could face.
Then comes the carrot. In another room, family members, job training advocates, religious leaders and other community stakeholders offer them opportunity — and assistance — to change their direction.
Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo was among the local officials who traveled to North Carolina to examine the initiative there.
New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington’s office is partnering with the city in the effort and he spoke about Restart in a measured tone.
"I see a value in the program if all the components are adopted, which will cost money and take a fair amount of work," he said. Whether the commitment is there for it to succeed is "up to the city," he said.
Alderman Greg Morehead, one of the city officials who visited High Point, said elected officials and community members, not only police, need to be invested if the city is going to address its crime problem. He said he saw real potential in the initiative as long as the city "followed it (the High Point model) to a tee."
The failures usually arose from cities trying to put their own spin on the program, he said.
Undercover investigations won’t be handled by a New Haven narcotics unit. The department’s gun unit and statewide narcotics task force currently conduct drug investigations in the city.
Reinstituting the department’s own narcotics squad, which was disbanded last year after a corruption scandal, is likely still months away, Redding said. The department is still short-staffed and will continue to be so until the police academy class graduates late this year. Redding said she didn’t imagine starting up the narcotics unit at least until then.
"I don’t think we’re ready to do that yet. We need to not put the cart before the horse. We need to really think through how we’re going to manage this," she said. "We really need to think through how we’re going to staff this, how we’re going to supervise it, who’s going to be in it, what’s the vetting process, before we can go in that direction."
William Kaempffer can be reached at wkaempffer@nhregister.com.

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