A federal sting investigation into the New Haven Police Department culminated March 13 when FBI agents locked down and then raided NHPD headquarters, arresting two officers — including Lt. Billy White, the head of the department’s narcotics division — and three bail bondsmen at the Chapel Street state courthouse.
The FBI took the city by surprise when it arrested White for alleged conspiracy and felony thefts that could earn him up to 15 years in prison. They also nabbed narcotics detective Justen Kasperzyk on a misdemeanor charge for allegedly stealing several hundred dollars of federally planted funds and using them to gamble.
The more than six-month-long sting operation also led to the arrests of Robert Jacobs, 79, Paul Jacobs, 48, and Philip Jacobs, 47 — a father and his two sons, who together own an award-winning city bail bond firm — for bribery conspiracy.
Two hours after the raid, the suspects were formally arrested and presented to a federal district judge in the Federal District Courthouse in Hartford. White appeared shaken at the hearing, clasping his hands over his head as a federal prosecutor listed the evidence against him and as the judge initially refused to grant him bail because FBI agents were concerned he was suicidal.
District Judge Thomas Smith, who presided at the hearing, said the FBI’s findings demonstrated that there was a “group of renegade police officers run amok in New Haven.”
Once the dust settled from the initial arrests, debate over the corruption allegations focused on aspects of Mayor John DeStefano’s leadership style, the future of public safety in the city and the possibility, which FBI sources say is more than likely, that more officers will be arrested as the investigation continues.
In the aftermath of the arrests, DeStefano and NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz attempted to reach out to the community and respond to the corruption allegations. Within days, they dissolved the narcotics unit and announced the start of internal reviews into the actions of the unit, even as the FBI seized more documents from the NHPD. Meanwhile, Ortiz and his assistant chiefs visited local patrol district offices to meet with community members.
Last week, the mayor announced he would bring in the Police Executive Research Forum to perform a close assessment of the inner workings of the NHPD. PERF, according to a statement released by the city, is a nationally prominent policing research organization that departments around the country have consulted during times of crisis or organizational change.
PERF will assess the NHPD’s internal ethics, investigative services, organizational culture and policies — particularly those relating to narcotics investigations, DeStefano announced at a Thursday press conference. After performing an initial assessment and compiling a report on the department, PERF will present the draft to the public and hold public forums on its findings and recommendations.
An Independent Accountability Team composed of aldermen, police commissioners, an inspector from the state’s attorney’s office, clergymen and a member of the police union, among others, will guide PERF’s work.
The Board of Aldermen must approve the $130,000 cost of PERF’s services, which were set under a no-bid contract. Several aldermen said that though there is some question of where exactly the money will come from, the funds will likely pass without difficulty.
The Board of Police Commissioners showed support for the outside assessment at meeting on Friday, commissioner Cathy Graves said.
“We support as a commission the mayor’s commitment to assuring the NHPD is above reproach in integrity of service,” she said. “I think its great to have an independent assessment. Companies to do it all the time.”
She said the only change she would like to see to the mayor’s proposal is a broader evaluation of the entire department.
But despite these recent efforts by DeStefano and Ortiz, not everyone in the New Haven community has reacted positively to the city’s response to the allegations.
Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said there was clearly an issue with the way division leadership within the NHPD was managed, though he is waiting until the FBI finishes its investigation to draw final conclusions. Officers in the narcotics division were rotated on a regular basis, he said, but the supervisor — White — was not. He said White had a “unique” personality that sometimes provoked the suspicions of community members.
“Someone like Lt. White clearly needed to be watched more carefully,” he said “It does not surprise me that the reaction of a lot of people we talked to is ‘Oh we saw this coming.’”
Other community leaders have been much more critical of DeStefano’s handling of the police department. Connecticut and Greater New Haven NAACP president Scot X. Esdaile and Connecticut ACLU chairman Roger Vann said they believe DeStefano has not taken enough responsibility for the NHPD’s leaders. Esdaile and Vann have accused the mayor of intervening to stop Ortiz from demoting White two years ago. Ortiz rescinded his initial decision to move White out of the narcotics division after a meeting with the mayor.
“To think the mayor, who has a reputation for micromanaging human resources issues, stayed out of it is ridiculous,” Vann said. “The context of the situation is that the mayor was running for governor, and he soon received the endorsement of the police union and used that to parley other support … You have to connect the dots.”
But DeStefano’s acting Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said the allegations are “ridiculous,” and both Ortiz and DeStefano have said publicly that the meeting did not influence the ultimate verdict on White’s fate two years ago.
Smuts also said that DeStefano should not have to take personal responsibility for White’s actions. He said a “parallel” can be found in the relationship between Yale President Richard Levin and Saybrook College Master Antonio Lasaga, who is currently serving prison terms for molesting a child and possessing child pornography.
“Nobody is implying it’s a personal failure of Rick Levin for appointing the college master,” Smuts said, adding that it would be a “different question” if the mayor were personally aware of White’s actions or if the problem with the police department were systemic.
Ward 11 Alderman Ed Mattison said he recently met White at a community meeting, and that while he was convinced that White — who gave out his cell phone and urged residents to call him — had a “visceral hatred of drug dealers,” he lacked a strategic vision to get rid of them. Immediately following the raid, Mattison said the arrests came as a “shock” to him and to many throughout the city.
“I had no idea he was doing this, and I don’t think anybody else did either, except maybe the people he was confiding in,” Mattison said. “It feels very terrible to me that somebody in that kind of position of responsibility could do something so — it just demonstrated a willingness to go far beyond what someone in that position would do. I’m really very sad for the city.”
Following the arrests, the State Attorney’s office began to take a closer look at pending cases handled by the NHPD narcotics unit to make sure the arrested officers had not mishandled them.
“We would review them anyway … we are just going to scrutinize them even closer,” said Michael Dearington, the state’s attorney in New Haven. “We would never prosecute a case where we had serious reservations about the allegations.”
Dearington said he was not sure of the number of cases they are currently reviewing, but it is more than just a couple. Most of the cases, he said, do not rely heavily on the testimony of either of the two arrested officers. His office is reviewing only pending cases, he said, but will review closed cases if anything suspicious is brought to their attention.
Tom Carson, the spokesman for the US Attorney’s office of Connecticut, said he could not comment on any developments since the arrests.
A town hall meeting will be held Tuesday evening to discuss the situation.
SIDEBAR: The ‘estupido’ incident paints picture of alleged corruption
The FBI affidavit describing the investigation of the NHPD includes one incident that has become a vivid symbol of the corruption allegations.
On the evening of Jan. 31, the head of the NHPD narcotics division allegedly received word that a woman’s life was in danger. She had, he was told, informed police of the location of $27,500 in stacks of cash — a deserted parking lot in the Long Wharf area of New Haven — but if police unearthed the drug money and revealed they knew its location, she might be killed by angry dealers.
Little did White know that there was no woman, that his partner was wearing a wiretap, and that FBI agents, not drug dealers, had planted the money, and were watching him via surveillance cameras.
According to the affidavit, he wondered out loud whether he should steal the money.
“What do you think?” the well-known officer, Lt. William “Billy” White, allegedly asked his partner. “The only thing I don’t like, I’m gonna kill [her]. That’s the only thing.”
According to the affidavit, White then pulled up his sweatshirt to conceal his identity, wrote “estupido” on the car to make the scene appear like a robbery and stole nearly $15,000 from the trunk.