The Hartford Courant reported last Friday that 27 police officers left the Hartford Police Department for suburban Hartford departments in the past year. Most of the departing officers said they were leaving for better pay and benefits. Most were young, and most were women or people of color.
A couple of years ago, West Hartford recruited a Black police chief away from Waterbury.
Hartford’s school system has trouble retaining teachers, who often leave for the suburbs.
This phenomenon, the poaching of quality employees, is not unlike the competition we often see among towns to locate desireable projects, like shopping centers or clean industry. Towns try to outbid one another with tax breaks and other incentives. The competition ultimately may be a good thing for one town or another, but in terms of the greater community, the competition only causes us to pay greater incentives than are necessary to attact those projects. It also results in the underdevelopment of the towns that can least afford to pay the incentives.
We need to recognize these practices for what they are – wealthy people in our community improving their lives at the expense of the poor people in our community.
It isn’t simply the wealthy taking from the poor; it’s the white people taking from the people of color. Our towns are segregated; they were segregated intentionally by white people, and the advantages created by that segregation are perpetuated by multiple practices. One of those practices is the appropriation of assets (desirable development projects, police officers, teachers) by the white towns to the detriment of the towns where Blacks and other people of color live. Another is restrictive land-use laws that keep the poor people out of the white towns. Another is the concentration of services for the homeless, the poor, the substance abusers (undesirable development) in the city where the people of color live.
Hartford is the least well-funded of the eight municipalities in the center of the metropolitan area. Hartford is disproportionately home to people of color. Hartford has the most serious crime problems of the eight. Our white suburban towns shouldn’t poach police officers from Hartford. This poaching achieves nothing – policing in the suburbs doesn’t improve, and policing in the City, where it’s most needed, gets worse. Hartford has the most challenged educational population in the metropolitan area. Our white suburban towns shouldn’t poach teachers from Hartford.
Why does this continue to happen? It happens because we have boundaries that cause people to think of their towns (their wealthy, white towns) as their community instead of recognizing the reality – that greater Hartford (diverse greater Hartford) is one community, a community of all of us. Within towns, people in one area don’t generally monopolize town assets to the disadvantage of other people in the town. Although a teacher may occasionally move from one school to another, Conard High School doesn’t actively recruit teachers from Hall High School. Why not? Because social and political realities work to cause everyone in West Hartford to recognize that some level of equity among all the residents is fair, appropriate and, in fact, required by the law. But people in West Hartford see nothing wrong with using their superior wealth and their desirable educational environment to hire teachers from Hartford High School. They see nothing wrong with hiring Hartford’s police officers.
Hall High families who live near Prospect Street live much closer to Hartford High families than to Conard families. So, why do Hall parents think of Conard parents as their neighbors and not Hartford High parents? Well, in some cases it’s because the Conard kids are white and the Hartford kids are Black, but I don’t think that’s the principal reason. The principal reason is that there is a town line that divides the community into separate sub-communities, and the town line causes us to think of people on “our” side of the line as our neighbors and people on the other side as just some other people with whom we are not connected. Our town lines keep us from developing social and emotional ties with our true geographic neighbors, ties that make unified communities strong.
People in Hartford and West Hartford are in all respects neighbors in one community. They drive on the same roads, they shop in the same stores, they worship in the same churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. They watch the same television shows, they root for the same teams, they go to the same theaters. Somehow, because we have drawn lines that separate neighbors, we think it is okay to compete with our neighbors, to take their assets and appropriate them as our own. If we recognized who our neighbors are, we wouldn’t undermine the strength of the institutions that serve them,
(Let’s be clear: It isn’t just West Hartford and Hartford where boundaries are a problem. Town boundaries divide neighborhoods everywhere. For example, I see no good reason for Wethersfield and Newington to be separate municipalities. However, Wethersfield and Newington being separate is not divisive, it’s just stupid. Stupid because the two towns merged would save millions of dollars a year and deliver better services. Not divisive, because the demographics of the two towns are similar, and one isn’t taking advantage of the other.)
(And let’s be clear about something else: If West Hartford and Hartford were merged, teachers and police officers still would leave positions in the city for jobs in the suburbs. In fact, taking a job in the city would be the portal through which teachers and police officers ultimately could get what some consider more desirable suburban jobs. The existence of the portal would help recruiting in the city schools, because obtaining jobs in the suburbs from outside of Hartford would become more difficult; starting in Hartford would be the primary way to get a job in West Hartford. However, the suburbs wouldn’t be actively recruiting the best from Hartford, and the suburbs would be cooperating with the city in improving schools everywhere.)
If Hartford and the seven contiguous towns were merged, people in greater Hartford would begin to see and treat each other, all of us, as the neighbors that we are. We would elect the same government officials, we would rely on the same police, we would have a unified school system that operated for the benefit of all of our childiren instead of just some of them. We would stop seeing our neighbors as people we can take from and start seeing them, as we should, as people we can work with to make our community safe, healthy and secure.
So, forget about all the obvious efficiencies merged towns would generate: Better schools, better policing, better fire and emergency services, better online services. Forget about all the economic benefits: one police chief and three assistants instead of eight and twenty, one superintendent of schools and three assistants instead of eight and twenty.
Just think about what it would be like to do right by our neighbors. What a novel idea.