Trailblazer Ortiz polices hometown with a passion

Francisco Ortiz Jr., chief of New Haven police, never dreamed of becoming a policeman. He did not dress up in uniform when he was a young boy and say, “When I grow up, I want to be a policeman.” Law enforcement was not on his radar screen even as he graduated from high school and started college. But when coincidence after coincidence landed him his first job as a patrolman over 25 years ago, Ortiz loved it immediately. It just clicked.

Having grown up in a New Haven public housing project, Ortiz — through determination and commitment — quickly worked his way up through every rank and major unit of the New Haven Police Department. At the end of April 2003, following the unexpected resignation of former Police Chief Melvin Wearing, Ortiz reached the final rung of the ladder. With an outpouring of support from the community, Ortiz took the helm as New Haven’s chief of police. He is the first Latino to reach this position.

With his roots firmly planted in the community, Ortiz said he feels a very personal attachment to the city.

“I was born and raised in New Haven,” Ortiz said. “I was a product of public housing and of public schools.”

In fact, Ortiz blazed his own trail — not only professionally, but personally as well. Both of his parents emigrated from Puerto Rico with no education, and Ortiz was the first child in his family to go to college. He said graduating from high school — Ortiz attended and graduated from the former Richard C. Lee High School in 1977 — was in itself a big accomplishment. His parents did not even completely understand why he wanted to go to college instead of simply getting a job to support a family, he said. But Ortiz had done exceptionally well in high school and was determined to further his education.

Once at college, where he was advised to pursue electrical engineering, Ortiz looked for a part-time job as a security officer. But in order to get the position, he needed a clean background check. In taking his first step down what was to be a fated path, Ortiz headed to the New Haven Police Department for the check. The first in a series of coincidences met him at the desk.

“It just so happened that it was their last day of recruiting,” Ortiz said. “They kept asking me to put my name down, and finally they convinced me to apply.”

Even after putting his name on the list, however, Ortiz was not seriously considering the job. He said that at times he even forgot he had applied. But, as if by coincidence yet again, Ortiz happened to be available for all the try-out events. And he got the job.

“When I finally got the job, I loved it,” Ortiz said. “I loved being able to regulate behavior in the community. I liked being able to hold someone responsible for their conduct. I really felt good about that.”

Ortiz said his enthusiasm and tenacity helped him to move up the ranks successfully.

“The best thing I could do is do the job better than anybody else could or wanted to,” Ortiz said. “I feel it’s important for everyone to understand how committed you are to what you’re doing. You have to sustain your enthusiasm — no fleeting enthusiasm. You have to be proactive.”

Above all, though, Ortiz emphasizes his long-standing relationship with the New Haven community. Besides being a police officer, Ortiz, a proponent of “community policing,” has long been a member of many local civic groups, often supporting events such as the New Haven Road Race and the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Ortiz also has several connections with Yale. Most specifically, Ortiz helped found the Yale Child Study Center’s Child Development/Community Policing Program (CD-CP), of which he is now a senior fellow. Since it began in 1991, the program — a partnership among the New Haven Police Department, the Yale Child Study Center, and the city of New Haven — has enjoyed marked success, both in reducing crime and knitting together the diverse fabric of the community. According to its Web site, the goal of the Child Development/Community Policing Program is to “heal the wounds that chronic exposure to violence inflicts on children and families.”

Ortiz said protecting children has always been an important part of a policeman’s job, but the switch from traditional to community policing — which occurred at the same time as the founding of the CD-CP — put a new emphasis on looking at what is best for the children themselves. Now, members of the Yale Child Study Center are on the scene working in cooperation with the police.

“It’s uniquely different from places where the cops are the enemy,” Ortiz said.

Steven Berkowitz, medical director of the CD-CP, said Ortiz has played an integral role in the development of the program.

“From day one, he’s been very invested in members of the community and in children’s issues in particular,” Berkowitz said. “He’s very committed to children’s development and to supporting their needs throughout their lives. He recognizes that crime can affect their lives.”

And Ortiz has exercised influence in the community in many other ways as well. He considers it very important to serve as a role model for younger children, and he has been recognized for such leadership. On Feb. 20, Ortiz received the Honorable John F. Martinez Leadership award, which recognizes Latino leaders for outstanding leadership contributions.

Mercedes Beltran, who was the companion of the late John F. Martinez, serves on the award’s committee. She said she had gotten to know Ortiz because her children were friendly with his children.

“[Fran]cisco is a wonderful father and a wonderful friend,” Beltran said. “He’s a role model for his family and for a lot of families. He works with passion on all he does.”

Ortiz said he values the way the community views him. He emphasized that he became police chief because the community wanted him in this position.

“This is a responsive community,” Ortiz said. “I was the people’s choice, and that means volumes to me. I think I earned my rights in this community.”

As for being the first Latino chief, Ortiz said he just wonders where the second, third and fourth are. He also said he would like to see a female chief in the future. Right now, though, Ortiz is simply looking to continue his commitment to making the department the best it can be.

“I hope to develop talent in this area and to work closely with others so we are ready for the next chief,” Ortiz said.

However, Ortiz said the hardest part of the job was having to let go of some of his power and authority.

“I’ve been accused of micro-managing,” Ortiz said. “I’m still close to the community, and like to have my pulse on the street, but I have to let other people do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Captain Stephen Verrelli, who has known Ortiz for many years in the NHPD, said Ortiz’ tendency to micro-manage reflects the chief’s passion for the job.

“We’re a good police department, and he’s looking to make it better,” Verrelli said. “He truly loves what he’s doing, and that passion comes out in him. He has no tolerance for mediocrity at any level, and rightfully so.”

Verrelli even said that Ortiz himself has spoken of his own enthusiasm. When Ortiz gets overly emphatic at meetings, according to Verrelli, he is known to proclaim, “It’s not anger, it’s passion!”

Though once urged to pursue electrical engineering, Francisco Ortiz has now finds himself chief of the NHPD. Ortiz is praised by his peers for his impact on the New Haven community.
Jennifer Sabin
Though once urged to pursue electrical engineering, Francisco Ortiz has now finds himself chief of the NHPD. Ortiz is praised by his peers for his impact on the New Haven community.

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