Although it was not originally part of the agenda, the search for a New Haven Police Department chief dominated aldermanic discussions on Wednesday night.
At the joint Finance and Public Safety Committee meeting — the first of two meetings last night at City Hall — the city’s chief administrative officer Robert Smuts ’01 recapped the progress of the police chief search and announced that the next chief will definitely not be from New Haven.
The aldermen also voted 8-4 to approve two new assistant chief positions for the New Haven Police Department. But the question of whether the two positions would be a burden on New Haven taxpayers was left unanswered by the end of the two-hour meeting.
During the second meeting, the members of the Public Safety Committee heard a final status report by the Deadly Force Task Force on its pilot program which released 50 Tasers into the hands of police officers last spring. They approved the continuation of the program and the release of 50 more Tasers to NHPD patrol officers.
The 12 aldermen heard testimony from Smuts about the need for two more assistant chiefs as per recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum. The City Hall-funded PERF report was written in response to the arrests of several policemen over the past year due to numerous corruption charges. The report provided recommendations on how to reform police management.
But the meeting was sidetracked when Ward 13 Alderman and Public Safety Committee Chair Alexander Rhodeen asked for an update for the police chief search.
Smuts said that the process is going well and that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the quality of the 30 applicants his department has seen so far — none of which have come from within the police department.
When asked how many of the applicants were from Connecticut, Smut’s reply was short and vague: “Some.”
The PERF report recommended the addition of two new assistant police chiefs — one to head the investigative and anti-drug bureau and one to head the internal affairs bureau.
But following the release of the PERF report, NHPD Police Chief Francisco Ortiz announced his retirement in December to take a position as public security director of Yale’s West Campus the next month. In January, Ortiz revoked the statement, saying he would stay until a new chief was selected to implement the PERF recommendations.
The new chief and the two proposed assistant chiefs would satisfy the city’s need for “effective management instead of throwing bodies at the program,” Smuts told the aldermen at the meeting.
Smuts further argued that there were many vacant police positions that could be taken off the payroll once the assistant police chiefs come in because the assistant chiefs would cover these jobs. This reform would effectively remove the need for using more city funds to pay for the two new positions, he said, a complaint made by many New Haven residents over the last months.
But Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said at the meeting that he still fears the addition of the assistant chief positions will have to be funded by additional taxes. He also questioned why the approval has to be done now, as opposed to when the police chief is chosen by Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Smuts replied that waiting until then will only delay fixing the flawed police system even further than the search is doing now.
“We need to be able to hit the ground running” once the chief comes, he said.
During the meeting, there was a faint sense of desperation as the aldermen addressed the concerns of the police department.
Rhodeen said currently, the police department was at its “darkest time [he] had ever seen.” Ward 16 Alderwoman Migdalia Castro added that right now is the “perfect opportunity” for a change — any change — in police management.
But no aldermen mentioned a financial solution for effecting that change.
Ward 23 Alderman and Finance Committee Chair Yusuf Shah said after the meeting that the process will be discussed later on.
“Today was really more of a policy issue,” he said in an interview. But the process will be determined before the police chief will be chosen and more PERF recommendation can be put into effect, he said.
At the second meeting, a final review of the Taser program was discussed by the Public Safety Committee and several prominent police experts and officials, including Assistant Police Chief Stephanie Redding.
A new chief is slated to be chosen in April, but Smuts said during last night’s first meeting that there may be a delay because of the “high quality” of candidates.