A year and a half after a corruption scandal in the New Haven Police Department Narcotics Enforcement Unit rocked the city and forced Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to dissolve the unit, the city will get a new narc.
Lt. John Velleca, a 16-year NHPD veteran and head of the department’s special investigations division, has been appointed by police Chief James Lewis to lead the narcotics division. The group, which will have 16 detectives and sergeants, will start up again as early as this winter, almost two years after it was dissolved, the New Haven Register reported Friday. Although the move symbolizes a new day for the department, some city officials said, Velleca still needs to rebuild the division — and its tarnished reputation — from scratch.
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“It’s a fine pick, but as with everything, we will see how it plays out,” said Ward 13 Alderman Alexander Rhodeen, chair of the aldermanic public safety committee. “It’s not simply a matter of fighting the drug use and dealing with the city. It’s also about dealing with the past of the drug division and dealing with the reputation and all the suspicions the public has.”
NHPD spokesman Officer Joe Avery did not respond to an e-mail request for comment and a phone request left on his office voicemail over the weekend. City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga, speaking for the city and the NHPD, declined to comment for this article.
In March 2007, federal agents arrested narcotics czar Lt. Billy White, narcotics detective Justen Kasperzyk and three bail bondsmen at the Chapel Street state courthouse following a half-year-long investigation into theft of government funds, criminal conspiracy and bribery. In the immediate aftermath, DeStefano and then-police Chief Francisco Ortiz dissolved the department and commissioned the independent Police Executive Research Forum to write up recommendations for an overhaul of the NHPD infrastructure.
After city officials received the PERF report — which recommended, among other things, adding assistant chief positions and recreating the narcotics unit — last November, they said they would implement many of the forum’s proposals.
Many PERF recommendations will be put into effect under Lewis, who took over the department in July. Now, Velleca will take over a position that many residents have said since the scandal broke has been tainted by White’s arrest. White is now serving a three-year prison sentence for his crimes.
“We’re going to try to restore a culture of integrity to the narcotics unit,” Velleca told the Register..
He added: “This is going to be a division that’s highly scrutinized … It’s going to be under the microscope all the time. We’ve got to work to build trust in the community, and we have to do that by achieving results.”
Velleca did not respond to a request for comment left on his home voicemail and with his father, John A. Velleca, over the weekend.
Since the narcotics division’s removal last year, the State Police Narcotics Task Force, the State Police New Haven Initiative Task Force and the NHPD have worked together to arrest drug dealers in city-state sting operations. Spokesmen from the state police were unavailable for comment over the weekend.
Over the weekend, for instance, city officials announced four “significant” narcotics-related arrests and seizures that occurred on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Police arrested four New Haven residents and one Hamden resident, and they seized 25 pounds of marijuana and 4.9 grams of crack cocaine.
But before Velleca and his unit can start work on their own drug investigations, Rhodeen said, Velleca will have to create a detailed mission statement for the group, one that explains how the group will curb drug use. Rhodeen said these options include targeting end-users as the local police did in the 1980s and aiding state drug forces in arresting high-profile suppliers.
Velleca must also explain, Rhodeen added, “why this time the drug unit can function effectively without corruption and without risk of the type of behavior that Lt. White and his band of idiots exhibited.”
Velleca’s team, NHPD Assistant Chief Peter Reichard told the Register, will soon receive training at a Massachusetts school for the Drug Enforcement Administration.