Incumbent New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker is running for reelection this November, facing a primary challenge from Karen DuBois Walton, executive director of New Haven’s public housing authority. Elicker defeated three-term incumbent Toni Harp to become mayor in 2019.
Connecticut Examiner spoke with Elicker about his platform for improving public safety in New Haven, as well as his platform on education, PILOT, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What have you been doing to improve public safety in New Haven?
We’re seeing a significant uptick in violence around the nation, and New Haven is unfortunately experiencing that as well, and our team has been doing many things to respond to this crisis. We’ve recreated and expanded the shooting task force in partnership with surrounding towns like Hamden, East Haven, West Haven, Meriden, and our federal and state law enforcement partners to address and solve shootings. We’ve increased the number of individuals participating in Project Longevity and Project Safe Neighborhoods. We’re investing $2 million into public safety initiatives, including significantly expanding street outreach workers to respond to the potential for retaliation when there is a shooting.
We also opened a Reentry Welcome Center earlier this year. Over 900 people come back to New Haven out of prison every year, and previously they were just dropped off on the green or in front of Whalley Avenue Correctional Facility. Now, everyone is dropped off in front of Project MORE on Grand Avenue, and it’s timed so a case worker or peer support specialist is there to welcome them home and provide resources and support.
What do you think has led to the increase in crime?
COVID is clearly a main driver, especially the stress and economic difficulties of the pandemic, and we’re seeing upticks like this in every city around the nation. Part of that is due to the shutting down of some programs that typically engage with people that have potential to be engaged in violence. Some victims and perpetrators are people who have recently been released and were involved in violence about a decade ago in the city, so that’s been part of the challenge as well.
Parole and probation officers at the state and federal level will normally visit people’s homes and search for drugs or firearms, but that program shut down as well for quite some time. I spoke with the governor and pushed to restart those programs, and that did happen. We were also one of the earliest communities to restart our violence interruption programs.
What role does the idea of defunding the police play into your public safety platform?
I knock on doors and talk with many, many residents across the city. Overwhelmingly, people want more beat cops, officers who know their neighborhood, know their name, with whom they can have a relationship. The spirit of the protests last summer by and large were about how, ultimately, we cannot solve our public safety challenges through law enforcement alone. We need to invest more in social services to uplift the community rather than in police to address these challenges in the long term. The majority of people in the New Haven community want police. They want accountable police, they want respectful police, but they do want someone to come when there is violence. They want to ensure that resources for safety exist.
We’ve created a crisis response team, and we get over 100,000 calls a year through our 911 call center. We estimate that around 10,000 of those calls may not merit a police response. The best response may be to connect that person with social services. We want to be thoughtful about how best to support people in a time of crisis.
Your opponent criticized you for the way New Haven handled school reopening this fall. How do you feel about how that played out, and what do you think this fall will bring for the school district?
I was a very strong advocate for opening schools in September for in-person learning. Not all Board of Education members felt the same way. There are seven members of the Board of Education. I am one of them, and I believe that we worked very hard under the area I have influence as mayor to support schools reopening. We did reopen schools, and we had schools open for in-person learning four days a week through the academic year. This is such a priority of mine, especially as a parent. My daughter is six, and is in first grade in New Haven Public Schools. I understand just how challenging it was for families.
When there were concerns raised about the infrastructure of our schools, in particular our HVAC systems, our team worked to implement improvements to make sure our schools were safe. We were able to provide devices and free internet to ensure access to learning.
Without a doubt, the pandemic had an impact on learning loss for the community. The question is, how do we respond? We put $1.5 million into summer and youth engagement programs. We put a significant amount towards extending summer camps, and integrating academics into summer programs that we’re offering jointly with New Haven Public Schools so that we can help children regain that learning loss and bounce back.
How do you feel about where the city’s relationship with Yale stands now?
I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the Yale relationship. We’ve certainly been very vocal about Yale’s responsibility to contribute more to the city. I am in regular communication with President Salovey, and our team is working with the university to increase Yale’s commitment to the city. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to come to an agreement that works well for everyone. The city still very much faces a financial crisis, and Yale increasing its payment to the city is vital to helping us ensure that we can provide services to residents and keep taxes from going up significantly.
What accomplishments are you proudest of from your first term?
We’ve accomplished things that mayors in New Haven have not been able to accomplish for decades.
The implementation of a tiered PILOT program is a game changer for the city. Sen. Martin Looney and the rest of the New Haven delegation and my administration worked very closely to collaborate and get that across the finish line. PILOT funding for New Haven went from 41 million to 90 million, which is for us a dramatic change that helps us address, in particular, our systemic financial challenges.
We’ve also increased some commercial flights to Tweed airport in a way that is sensitive to the surrounding neighborhood and eliminates the city’s subsidy. For decades, mayors have worked to expand Union Station in a way that accomplishes both the city and the state’s goals. People have been talking about the reentry welcome center for years. In the past month alone, we’ve been to maybe five or six major ribbon cuttings or groundbreakings. Everything we do focuses on ensuring that this growth is inclusive, so that people who have lived in the city for a long time benefit from it while we continue to attract new investment and residents so our city has an opportunity to thrive.