Skip to main content

Interview with Nick Pastore, Former Police Chief of New Haven, Connecticut

Submitted by David Borden on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
New Haven's former police chief reduced crime -- and opposed the drug war.
From the Drug Policy Letter, a publication of the Drug Policy Foundation, Number 36, Spring 1998, p. 18. Reprinted here with permission from DPF (now a part of Drug Policy Alliance). EDITORS' NOTE: When the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, appointed Nick Pastore as police chief in 1990, violent and property crimes were hitting all-time highs in a city of 130,400. Chief Pastore brought with him a fresh philosophy of policing to his 380-officer force. When Pastore left in 1997, New Haven's force was only slightly bigger, but the crime rate was down 22 percent. Pastore's methods and views attracted political controversy. He did not support the DARE program, which uses police officers to teach school children about drugs, and does not like current drug policies because of their effect on the community and on policing. DPF gave Pastore its 1991 H.B. Spear Award for his approach to law enforcement, and Pastore joined the Board of Directors in 1993. Pastore now does research for the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation out of New Haven. Rob Stewart interviewed him.
DPL:What was it like becoming police chief in 1990, the year after a peak in homicides for New Haven? Nick Pastore: I knew one of the reasons for the out-of-control rates of violence was that many people felt that the "right" people -- drug dealers and other criminals -- were being killed. People thought they could sit back and just dial 911 when they needed help. That reactionary approach is wrong. I had to humanize the police and stimulate citizen involvement. Community participation makes policing effective. The drug war is detrimental to policing because it treats the police officers like military in combat and it treats everyone else like the enemy. I knew I would meet resistance from the rank-and-file police officer because military-style policing is exciting and adventurous. DPL: How did you go about changing policing in New Haven? Pastore: Traditionally, the policing philosophy was to buy more tanks, helicopters, bulletproof vests, and high-powered guns. The emphasis needs to be on a philosophy of human rights and education -- more brain than brawn. We started with sensitivity training, understanding what we called the special populations -- from the mentally ill to the homeless to people living with HIV, raising awareness about the low quality of life for women and children. Certainly addicts fall into the category of special populations. All too often the attitude is: Lock 'em up. If we humanize the selection and training of police officers, it checks their trained reflex to pull out a gun first. Policing begins by getting to know the members of the community on a first-name basis. One of the greatest surprises I had in policing is that the community wants to work with the police. DPL: How were you able to address the increase in crime without dramatically increasing the number of officers? Pastore: What is important isn't the number of police on the street, but the way they handle themselves. We policed with human kindness, even when we dismantled drug gangs. I believed in letting the gangs know exactly what we were doing. All those who were ready to drop out of the gang, seek rehabilitation, find employment, or get more education would know we were there to help. I sat down with the Latin Kings, a drug gang with a notorious reputation. We established that we really did care what happened to them, but we let them know that we wanted the antisocial behavior to stop. If it didn't stop, we knew who they were, and there would be consequences. DPL: How did you instruct your officers to deal with other drug offenses, say a case of simple possession? Pastore: Again, it's the process you have in place. Remember that a police officer has more discretion than the police chief. I remember taking drugs off a person when I was undercover. I went as far as talking to the person and, once I found I could keep track of that person, I would throw the drugs down the sewer. If it's a young person, you get the parents involved and, more often than not, you get a better reaction than jailing someone. If you arrest first, the kid says, "Ma, I wasn't doing anything. The cops are picking on me again." Often the parent translated that: "I don't believe the cop. I believe my son." But when you went to the parents and said, "We're not here to arrest, but we're looking at the situation," the police officer can judge the entire scenario based on the parents' reaction. Discretion can be used by holding an arrest in abeyance. I think simple possession can be handled without incarceration. More of these young people are worth saving, rather than putting them straight into the criminal justice system. DPL: You established, by all accounts, a progressive police academy. How did you change the training? Pastore: We changed things by placing a strong emphasis on understanding the composition of society and why people behave like they do. Officers would have to live in a homeless shelter, serve food at the food banks, meet HIV-infected people in a hospice, and so on. They would have to present their findings in a thesis to the chief before they could pass. I remember several occasions when almost the entire class was in tears based on somebody's story. DPL: When you set up the academy, did it conflict with veteran officers who had been trained to act differently? Pastore: The veterans were trained in a different mindset: It's a jungle out there, it's a war. Most cops who work in urban settings are scared. They have to be. Everyday, they put on this belt with the tools of destruction -- a gun, mace, a PR-24 [baton], bullets -- and then a bulletproof vest to go to work. What we have to do nationwide is connect the police with the community. Let me give you an example: When I started as chief, there was this tough guy on the force who would call for backup once a week. He brought the labor union in because he wanted bigger guns, heavier flashlights, boots, all that. He was in my office pounding the table saying: "It's a war out there." So, I walked the beat with him and put him in a public housing unit that was 99 percent black. I matched him with a sergeant who was connected with the philosophy of community policing. One month later, I went there, and what do you think this officer was doing? While on duty, he's wearing shorts and playing basketball with the kids. They had cleaned out this blacktop, planted flowers, and made it into a court. I asked him, "Officer, what do you think you're doing? Where's your gun?" He said, "Aw, Chief, I don't need a gun with these kids." That's the point. When they like you, you don't need a gun. This officer turned out to be one of the best community police officers I know. You can't blame the cops. You have to blame the leadership. There are many more bad police chiefs and politicians than there are bad cops. DPL: Why do you believe we have to change our national drug policy? Pastore: Reforming the drug laws is part of understanding what policing is. We do more damage by criminalizing people. Drug users are already marginalized, and, when they get into the criminal justice system, they're in bigger trouble. If you've been arrested, you can't be a police officer, a firefighter, or a teacher. You're branded. Why is the recidivism rate so high? When you come out of prison, all the doors are closed in your face. Every drug user should have some place to go and be embraced when there. But that is often not the way it is. If they have no friends or family, the first person an addict should feel comfortable going to is a police officer. We should police to be engineers of social change and improvement.
Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.