Police Chief Daryl Roberts' declaration that Hartford has become toxic in its level of incivility sparked anger, questions and introspection Thursday as leaders and residents wondered if the capital city has reached some sort of tipping point.
While some said the recent episodes of violence that have sparked attention are staggering, others noted that violence has long been a part of the city's fabric. Fingers were pointed at city hall, with critics accusing Mayor Eddie A. Perez of concentrating on selling the city and talking about dropping crime rates rather than owning up to its real problems. Perez pledged Thursday to solve the recent crimes, which he called "horrific," and said he believes that at its core Hartford's population is caring, not callous.
As community activists and neighborhood leaders searched for ways to solve the problem of the city's often brutal streets, many applauded Roberts, saying his comments were refreshingly honest on a topic that political leaders too often smooth over with rhetoric.
One leader, J. Stan McCauley, a former mayoral candidate and cable access television personality, likened Hartford to an alcoholic, whose first step toward recovery should be to acknowledge a problem.
"Tell people the truth," McCauley said, "and then they have an easier time adjusting to it. The city is out of control. There is no law. There is no consequence for people's actions.
"The whole attitude of 'Me first and to heck with my neighbor' has become the status quo here, and it is a serious, serious problem."
SHOW OF FORCE
Three specific events have prompted the criticism and hand-wringing:
On Friday afternoon, a hit-and-run accident that was caught on tape left Angel Arce Torres, 78, paralyzed, lying in the middle of Park Street under full view of passing motorists and onlookers.
Monday morning, a savage beating and robbery sent former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone to the hospital with severe injuries.
And Wednesday, police discovered the badly decomposed body of a man inthe basement of a recently foreclosed home.
On Thursday, Torres was still in critical condition at Hartford Hospital, while Carbone was in fair and stable condition.
Roberts reacted with anger to the incidents Wednesday, saying the acts were inhumane, that the city had lost its "moral compass" and had a "toxic relationship with ourselves."
Perez reacted Thursday with what he described as a show of solidarity, holding a press conference and calling for help from citizens to solve the crimes that had sparked the debate. Standing with city council leadership, the superintendent of schools, the chief, members of the business community, clergy and one of the victim's relatives, Perez said he wanted to send a clear message to criminals.
"We are not going to let anybody take away the progress we have made to make Hartford a safe city," Perez said. "Let this message be clear. If you commit a crime in the city of Hartford, you will be arrested and justice will be done."
Meanwhile, Gov. M. Jodi Rell sent her sympathies to the families and said, "These incidents and others ... shock our state to the core."
Perez said Thursday that he has initiated conversations with Rell about getting law enforcement help from the state this summer while the city trains new police recruits to bolster its ranks.
Angel Arce, Torres' son, attended the mayor's press conference, saying he refused to watch the video of his father being hit. Through tears, he asked for help in getting justice for his father.
Calixto Torres, president of the city council and chairman of its public safety committee, and who is no relation to the victim, said Thursday that the news reports and tape of the hit-and-run were misleading.
Roberts had said Wednesday that he was not aware if anyone had called 911. But Torres said, "Within one minute of the victim having been struck, there were four 911 calls to the city of Hartford, calling for ambulances and describing the vehicles and the direction that those vehicles were headed.
"These were concerned citizens, caring individuals, taking care of crime and doing their civic duty by doing the right thing in this situation," Torres said.
Perez, too, tried to put what Roberts had said Wednesday in a new light, saying that anyone would react emotionally to the graphic images of a man being hit by a car, but that city residents have morals and a "reservoir of goodwill."
"I think the chief and I are leaders in this city and believe in the people of this city, and the people believe in us," Perez said. "These incidents were horrific incidents and they play on our emotions. It troubles him. It troubles me. Until we see an arrest, we are not going to be happy." He called on citizens to provide police with any information they may have about the incidents.
Roberts, who did not speak at the press conference until asked a direct question by a reporter in its closing moments, backed off from the comments he made a day earlier.
"I was very angry yesterday," Roberts said. "When an individual gets harmed and it is caught on tape like that, and it is very graphic, it sends a very bad message. I do believe we have good citizens in this city, that people care about this city. Unfortunately, there is a small minority that create a bad situation for our entire city, and we are looking to eradicate that element.
"But we are not going to give up on our city," Roberts added.
Many said Thursday, however, that Roberts' earlier comments were the first candid ones they could remember by a public official addressing the issue of violence instead of sugar-coating the issue. Perez's initial response to the incidents Wednesday was to say through his spokesperson that crime was down and that many positive things were happening in the city.
Steve Harris, a neighborhood leader in the North End and a former councilman, said his first reaction to the incidents was anger that "we have become so uncaring and desensitized that we allow this stuff to go on."
Harris said he had "all the confidence in the world in Roberts," who, Harris noted, "grew up here and knows the streets." But Harris said that Hartford suffers from a failure in leadership. Harris said that quality of life problems - litter, blighted buildings, graffiti, loud music, drag racing - are driving average citizens mad.
"If they look left and right and all they see is garbage and litter, they are more likely to roll down that window and add to that garbage and litter," Harris said. "Until we start dealing with quality of life stuff, slamming people with the quality of life stuff, then all it is going to do is escalate."
Harris said Perez spends too much time "talking downtown," trying to convince everyone it is safe to eat and play in the city, and not enough time listening to average citizens.
"The fact of the matter is, us people in the neighborhoods are still catching hell," Harris said. "It doesn't appear that [Perez] recognizes anymore the real issues that are killing us out here.
"If you eat bologna then you are a bologna guy. But if you start eating steak, you get a taste for steak, and you don't ever want to go back to bologna."
Former Republican city Councilman Robert Painter said Roberts "nailed" the issue, and agreed that no one wanted to hear "spin" from city hall about crime being down.
"People want politicians to respond in a way that is realistic," Painter said. "So you don't want to hear the spin, that everything is really all right, because we know everything is not all right."
But Painter said he felt the problem was not a breakdown of government, but more a breakdown of family and community.
"I think government provides infrastructure for maintaining law and order," he said. "But government doesn't make people behave properly. The only way we can make that happen is if people make that their standard."
He said his neighborhood revitalization zone in northern Frog Hollow is committed to an outreach campaign, to get neighbors out together doing activities such as planting trees or having block parties. The theory, he said, is that people are "not going to hurt someone they know."
But not everyone criticized Perez's reaction to the incidents.
David S. Barrett, president of the West End Civic Association, said that while he agreed that the events were tragic, he would not want to overreact in a way that could harm the city's reputation.
The incidents are an indictment of the human condition, not of Hartford, Barrett said. People must look into themselves and find a way to care about others, he said.
"What has happened is unfortunate, but I think that it is still a reality that most of the crimes happening are against people who they know, and are not random," Barrett said. "The norm is bad guys doing things to other bad guys."
Barrett defended Perez, saying that the mayor needed to balance concern over crime, which is down overall, with blowing recent events out of proportion.
"The mayor, and I, are rightly worried that someone will say they can't come to the Bushnell [Center for the Performing Arts] or else they might get mugged," Barrett said. "Crime is serious. One crime is one too many. But don't let the perception of crime stop you from enjoying Hartford and what it has to offer. These are terrible events, but they are aberrations."
For suburbanites who commute to work in Hartford, there seems to be a virtual wall around downtown that isolates them from the realities of the rest of the city. Most of those interviewed Thursday said they rarely linger after work.
"You come in, park your car and walk across the street to your office," said John Morgan, who was sitting with a friend outside JoJo's Coffee Roasting Co. cafe on Pratt Street.
What really gets the office gossip roiling is when the violence that plagues some neighborhoods strikes downtown, such as the shooting death in March on Prospect Street of a 16-year-old in which an 18-year-old has been charged with murder.
Dawn Ballantyne-Wild, of Manchester, said something has changed within young people.
"They're kind of desensitized to what I'm going to call the gore factor, movie gore, video game gore," she said. "They're not sensitive when it's happening to an actual human being."
Her friend, Jane Hopkins, of Windsor, was blunt.
"I don't particularly care for being around here," she said.
Chris Forbes, who was taking a lunchtime walk in Bushnell Park, said he occasionally goes out in Hartford before heading home to North Haven. He said he never felt in danger, but added that it was "disgusting" that no one appeared to react quickly in the Park Street incident.
"I don't know if it's worse than it used to be, but clearly there's a problem," he said.
Contact Daniel E. Goren at email@example.com.