April 22, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 11:30 AM EST
It's what I'd feared: those of us who want to tear down the Aetna Viaduct – the decked portion of I-84 that slices through downtown Hartford – are likely seen as wackos, according to former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.
Norquist was in town last week to discuss his wacko-ness: He led the successful effort to rip down a few miles of elevated highway in Milwaukee, thereby creating a few billion dollars in real estate and less pollution, less cars, less traffic, etc.
His outside voice validated our compass headings regarding transportation. After he finished, I asked him about another Hartford challenge: how to deal with crime and public safety.
"Bill Bratton and Rudy Guiliani," Norquist said. Plus, everyone needs to be serious in the fight against crime.
I'm not sure I agree 100 percent with Norquist's assessment of the Big Apple as a beacon for crimefighting. Nor would Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima. But the crime rate in the five boroughs has dropped while Hartford's seems to rise.
And isn't Hartford already employing Bratton's revolution in computerized crime tracking and community policing? Sure it is.
As part of the effort, HPD created Conditions Teams, mobile groups of police officers who can shift duties in neighborhoods to respond to the largest gathering threats.
At this time, the looming storm clouds hang over Weaver and Hartford Public High Schools, so that's where the Conditions Teams are stationed.
Asylum Hill Community Service Officer Jim Barrett announced this at the last NRZ meeting April 7, much to the displeasure of Asylum Hill residents.
"Quality of life issues will slip because resources are deployed to high schools," Barrett said. With refreshing honesty, Barrett explained that Jamiacans and blacks were beefing at Weaver, and teachers who have to re-interview for their jobs at Hartford Public High School have checked out.
"We are concerned with officer and teacher safety," Barrett said. And thus the officers were shifted.
As a consequence, moving the conditions teams takes them off nights and weekends, a time when the officers are needed most, especially as the weather grows warmer, Julianne Lugo said. Lugo is an Asylum Hill resident and works for NINA.
"Is the school system doing anything to deal with the problem?" asked community organizer Jennifer Hadlock.
Barrett laughed. "You'd have to talk to the Superintendent," he said.
"The Superintendent wouldn't admit to a problem," Hadlock retorted.
"Of course not, of course not," Barrett said.
Last week, Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski was out of the office for April vacation, said school press flack Nancy Benben, formerly of the Hartford Courant. So he was unavailable for comment. Benben didn't return an additional call this week.
The school system has manpower and resources, Barrett said, but at HPHS, there is no focus.
"A lot of them are in limbo, so it's slipping. It's a big problem," he said. "Their problem became our problem, and now it becomes your problem."
Did the Superintendent ask for the additional cops? wondered Jennifer Cassidy, an Asylum Hill resident and council aide for City Councilman Jim Boucher.
"No," Barrett said. HPD press flack Nancy Mulroy confirmed that the decision to move the conditions team came from within HPD.
"That's so the Superintendent could say he didn't ask for it," Cassidy said in the meeting. Granted the Asylum Hill NRZ is screwy, but it's got a great cast of politically savvy characters.
After an equivocating phone conversation and a confusing email exchange, mayoral press flack Sarah Barr finally confirmed that it is true, more cops now patrol the high schools.
"Conditions teams (which are mobile) have been utilized at the schools at arrival and dismissal times," wrote Barr. (I hate interviews by email, but please excuse this method, as law school exams are beating me down).
So what is the chairman of the Board of Education doing about this increased threat of violence in the schools?
"Safety in our schools is a top priority and Mayor Perez will be following up with Chief Roberts to see that the appropriate steps are being taken," Barr wrote in a perfunctory email response.
Mayor Perez couldn't comment personally because he was in Washington, DC last week for an anti-gun violence conference, Barr said, and she sent me to Mulroy.
But first, I talked to Andrea Comer, Board of Education member and city council aide for Matt Ritter.
She disagreed with Barrett's opinion, noting that last year, camera crews were at HPHS because of racial fights, and teachers weren't reapplying for their jobs then.
Much of the violence incidents and shootings in the city come from young people, she said.
"You can dissect or pick apart any issue you want to and blame it on anything," Comer said. "At the end of the day, violence is a problem in our city, in our country."
Schools are a microcosm of our community, she said.
"Things don't get separated because you put people in a building," Comer added. "My suggestion is that rather than complaining about it, we come up with a solution."
The shattered American dream, in tatters by frustrated economic opportunity and the lack of education contribute to the cycle of violence, she said. She blamed a group of people who make their living off the backs of kids, but refused to identify them.
Otherwise, Comer applauds HPD's decision to put cops in the schools.
Conditions teams are used to address trends, according to HPD flack Mulroy.
"With spring comes kids loitering and congregating," Mulroy said.
The North Division Commander, Deputy Chief John Horvath, has ordered that two conditions teams to be in the area of schools at dismissal hours, Mulroy said. During instruction hours, the fully-staffed school resource officers keep a presence in the schools.
The conditions teams, then, are "more prevention, to make sure order is maintained," Mulroy said.
Order in schools is order on the streets, Comer said. Yet, she maintained "If the police department had the appropriate kind of numbers in terms of staffing, the Chief wouldn't have to selectively deploy resources."
The shift won't affect policing on the streets, Mulroy said, asserting that crime was down overall 10 percent. Reeled off as a banal profit/loss statistic, it didn't square with Officer Barrett's assessment at the NRZ meeting.
"As of today, crime is about the same is last year," Barrett said on April 7, 2008.
A homicide on Huntington, a rape on Ashley, an armed bank robbery on Asylum and seven car breaks across the neighborhood, yeah, about normal for life in America's impoverished urban core.
For the students strolling into HPHS Tuesday morning, April 22, extra cops were no big deal.
"They're just trying to help out," said one freshman. His friend didn't even notice that there was a rising threat of violence. Nor did a few other frosh and sophomores.
Maybe it's the adults who are the wackos here, worried about resources and staffing. To address the issue, in fine NRZ fashion, president Bernie Michel suggested that we write a letter. That'll show the Mayor we mean business.
And when we finish that, let's march on down to the DOT and sit in the commissioner's office until he tears down I-84's Aetna Viaduct, and, as Milwaukee's best John Norquist said, they pay for it, too.