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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Hartford’s armed citizen patrols hailed as ‘successful’ by proponents

    Amid a rash of gun violence in Hartford’s North End, a church leader who called for armed citizens to supervise the streets has said that so far the patrols have been successful in keeping the neighborhood safe.

    Archbishop Dexter Burke, senior pastor of Walk In The Light Church of God on Garden Street, said that he got “fed up” with the violence around his church back in February. After two men were shot and killed right near his congregation on Feb. 10, Burke wrote a letter on Facebook saying that area residents were teaming up with Rev. Cornell Lewis’ Self Defense Brigade.

    “Folks are afraid, Hartford is unsafe,” Burke said. “The current policies are not helping. Those who criticize the patrols don’t understand the seriousness of the problem.”

    Lewis, a former minister who started the brigade as a solution to the city’s crime, organizes the daily patrols. The group of armed citizens, who all have legal permits to carry, have so far installed 75 security cameras in various homes along Garden Street. The group has active patrols along both Garden and Nelson Streets, where 15 citizens take part in a single patrol that lasts a few hours before switching off in shifts.

    “We think it has been successful in the sense that where we usually see pockets of crime, we have seen a substantial decline,” Burke said. “It’s noticeably less. Residents of Garden Street have said they feel much safer now. We feel they have been effective and we’re going to keep doing them.”

    On Sundays the group enlists help for extra patrols to ensure Burke’s congregation feels safe both coming and leaving church services. The group of legal gun owners are friends, neighbors, relatives and concerned citizens, Burke said.

    “They’re also picking up trash and litter,” Burke said. “We’re working on getting paint for homes, planting trees and flowers in the summer. We’re doing a lot more than just self-defense. It’s the neighborhood coming together.”

    But despite what Burke calls a “great success,” the city has criticized the patrols and said that more guns on the streets only adds more trauma to victims of gun violence. Mayor Arunan Arulampalam said in a statement that he believes more guns on the streets is not the answer.

    “Our community has seen so much pain and trauma, and what we need is for those who love this city to do the hard work of healing that pain, not walk around our streets with guns trying to take the law into their own hands,” Arulampalam said.

    “I stand with community groups like Mothers United Against Violence, the NAACP, and others who are actively working to make our community stronger and safer. We are creating an Office of Violence Prevention at City Hall to support that work.”

    While Hartford experienced a sharp increase in shootings in 2020 and 2021, the numbers decreased last year, and are now showing a two-year decline.

    In 2023, there were 98 nonfatal shooting victims — less than half of the 211 Hartford saw in 2020. And the number was down by 28% from 2022, according to a report in former Mayor Luke Bronin’s transition binder. But while the number of nonfatal shooting victims last year was lower than any year since 2006, homicides still remain high. There were 28 homicides from gun violence in Hartford in 2023. While that’s a significant drop from 39 homicides in 2022, it remains higher than in 2019 when 23 people were killed by gun violence in the city, according to police.

    Lt. Aaron Boisvert of the Hartford Police Department declined to comment on the patrols.

    But Mike Lawlor, criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and former undersecretary for criminal justice policy under former Gov. Dannel Malloy, said that armed citizen patrols carry several risks that can lead to unintended consequences. Lawlor also served as part of Arulampalam’s transition team on the quality of life and public safety committee for Hartford.

    “There’s a lot more things that can go wrong than can go right,” Lawlor said. “If you use a firearm and want to claim self defense, you’ve got that right but there are rules around that. You can’t just chase after somebody down the street with a weapon.”

    Connecticut is not a stand-your-ground state and does not have the same self-defense laws like other states do, according to Lawlor. That means that anyone who is confronted with use of force must first retreat if it is safe to do so. Only if a person cannot retreat, can they be justified to use deadly force in self-defense.

    “Unless you are law enforcement, you have a duty to retreat before using deadly force,” Lawlor said. “The police don’t have that duty — it’s their job to run towards danger. But it’s your duty to run away from it. That’s the law in Connecticut.”

    Lawlor said that armed citizen patrols, which don’t have the same training police officers do in de-escalation tactics, can actually make a situation worse.

    “There’s a lot about this that seems like a bad idea. It’s not illegal, but smoking isn’t either, and that’s also a bad idea,” Lawlor said. “We know our law enforcement agencies are stretched very thin these days. It’s hard to hire people and urban police departments are dealing with staffing crises. Not because of any budget but because it’s hard to find people to do that work. That’s a real problem. To me, the solution is what can we do to incentivize more people to be trained police officers, not armed vigilantes.”

    The city’s police department, which has dealt with staffing issues, has 372 officers, according to Boisvert. The department is authorized to have 463 sworn personnel, ranging from patrol officers to chief. The number is down from 374 officers last summer.

    But despite the criticism Burke and Lewis have received, they said that the patrols will continue, with possible expansion in other areas of the city.

    “Our police department is so understaffed, so they just can’t pay attention to every part of the city. It’s not their fault,” Burke said. “We’ve had people from downtown also ask us to help set up patrols in their neighborhoods. I think people know that it is working.”

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