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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Armed citizen patrols expanding to downtown Hartford

    HARTFORD — As the UConn Husky men’s basketball team marched in downtown Hartford for the official victory parade on Saturday, a small group of armed citizens marched down Garden Street in the city’s North End.

    They weren’t there to celebrate UConn’s historic win, they were there to “take back” their neighborhood.

    “The energy being poured into sporting celebrations is admirable and well deserved but if state and city leaders prioritize crime-fighting measures for Hartford in the same manner, then we would all have a community that is safe, enjoyable, progressing and one that we can be proud of,” said the Rev. Dexter Burke, senior pastor of Walk In The Light Church Of God.

    Burke and Cornell Lewis’ Self Defense Brigade have been patrolling the area of Garden and Nelson streets for the last six weeks after a double homicide back in February. Around 30 armed civilians take part in the patrols that march up and down the street throughout various hours of the day. Lewis said the group continues to add new members.

    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 conceal carry, have so far installed 75 security cameras in various homes along Garden Street. Lewis, who wears a body camera similar to police officers with two pistols concealed under his white “Block Watch” T-shirt, also flies a drone for surveillance around the neighborhood.

    “Armed citizen patrol,” Lewis shouts into a blue megaphone as he walks down the street. “Armed citizen patrol on duty.”

    Lewis and Burke, who have both called the patrols successful in helping keep the street safe, said they will be expanding their reach across the city to the downtown area. Burke said store owners in the downtown and around Dunkin’ Park have asked the Self Defense Brigade for their help patrolling around their shops. The group has not received feedback from residents in the downtown yet.

    “We believe the residents of those areas shouldn’t have to give us permission to fight crime. We believe that anywhere where crime is, we have an authority and an obligation to fight it. So we’re not waiting for anyone,” Burke said. “The criminals don’t have to ask to commit crime in the neighborhood, why should we have to ask anybody to fight it? Store owners downtown are locking their doors in between customers coming into their shops because of the crime and theft. They want security down there.”

    Downtown Hartford, with its largely commuter population, is the financial heart of the city with several companies like Travelers Insurance that employ hundreds of workers from surrounding suburbs. The area also has one of the lowest crime rates in the city, according to Hartford police.

    “We don’t see too much violent crime downtown,” said Lt. Aaron Boisvert, Hartford police spokesperson. “It’s not a high problem area.”

    But while the group has called the patrols successful, the city has criticized the armed patrols as unnecessary and harmful. Mayor Arunan Arulampalam previously 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.

    Other groups in the city like Mothers United Against Violence have also criticized the patrols as harmful. Arulampalam, who recently created an Office of Violence Prevention, has said the way to stem violence is through intervention and creating more opportunities for education and employment for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

    Lewis, who said the mayor has not yet reached out to him, blasted Arulampalam for his response to the patrols and said he plans on expanding them across the city as the group grows larger.

    “He needs to stop criticizing us and find real solutions to these problems,” Lewis said. “Crime is not getting better and no office is going to make it better. We’re here because nothing else is working. We’re not going to stop.”

    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.

    Hartford residents Jennifer and Sean Lopinto, who both live in the city’s South End, came out to join Lewis and Burke on patrol. The pair, who learned about the patrols from the pro-gun lobby Gun Owners of America, said they were interested in learning more.

    “This is not just about the South End or the North End, we should be one community,” Jennifer Lopinto said walking down Garden Street. “Violence can happen in any neighborhood and being here felt really important. It’s something that gets me riled up, so I wanted to put my money where my mouth is.”

    Lewis said the Self Defense Brigade will begin patrols around Dunkin’ Park starting this weekend.

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