Lt. John Velleca stood at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Sherman Parkway Tuesday afternoon, his hair closely cut and his suit crisply pressed. Although he follows in the notorious and sourly remembered footsteps of his predecessor, he appeared unfazed by his reborn narcotics division’s tarnished past.
Velleca, the newly appointed head of the New Haven Police Department’s narcotics enforcement unit, is set to replace former Lt. Billy White, the currently imprisoned officer who nearly sent the city’s police department into a tailspin in March 2007. Now, it is up to Velleca to establish a concrete system of regulations to avoid the missteps of the White era of drug policing.
Asked if he was anxious about taking the job, Velleca responded confidently.
“I have no concerns,” he said at the press conference.
Speaking over the afternoon traffic, NHPD Chief James Lewis confirmed media reports of Velleca’s new position and the revival of the narcotics unit, which was disbanded following a scandal 18 months ago. But while the unit’s reinstatement signals progress towards widely touted reform, logistical road blocks still remain. Recommendations given to the unit by the Police Executive Research Forum in the aftermath of the March 2007 scandal are both monumental and, in at least one case, controversial.
The narcotics team will consist of 16 detectives split into four independently operating tactical teams, Velleca said. One of the teams, for example, will focus on gang intelligence, and another on street crimes.
All in all, both mid- to high-level narcotics distribution and street-level crime will be targeted, police officers said. Lewis said the focus of the unit at any given time will correspond with the ebb and flow of activity. If police officers notice more violence arising from lower-level drug dealers, that is who they will start to target, Lewis said.
“If narcotics is driving a lot of our shootings, then we need to do whatever we can to minimize drug-related conflicts,” he said.
PERF also called for unit officers to be submit financial disclosure statements and to undergo intermittent financial and credit history checks. Lewis referred to the practice of intricate background checks as relatively new and still highly contested in the world of policing.
There has not yet been a formal decision to implement annual financial audits of unit members, Lewis explained. Other departments across the country that have tried to implement simple measures are currently facing lawsuits by officers claiming privacy infringement, he added.
In the wake of corruption allegations that implicated three members of the former narcotics unit — White, Det. Justen Kasperzyk and, later, Det. Jose Silva — on charges of theft and bribery, the department not only chose to disband the unit but, with the help of the city, decided to look for avenues for reform.
Shortly after the scandal, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. contracted third-party consultant PERF to examine the NHPD and make recommendations to help avoid future mishaps. Last November, PERF came out with a 127-page report — referred to colloquially as the “PERF report” — which was chock full of suggestions.
Among them were several recommendations for a new narcotics unit, which PERF strongly indicated should be re-instated.
It is now up to Velleca to see the suggestions of the PERF report through. PERF found several of the existing NHPD policies regarding confidential funds, informants and seized drug stashes were either badly structured or poorly enforced.
Now that Velleca has assumed control of the unit, Lewis said, it will be up to him to set up a systematic process for enforcing the rules.
“Gaining the public’s trust will come with achieving results … and restoring a culture of integrity,” Velleca said. “The goal is to get a system in place that’s effective.”
Velleca’s new narcotics unit will not hit the streets until early next year. Until then, a state police task force of four officers will continue to augment the four-man NHPD team working drug cases.
Lewis also announced Tuesday the creation of a traffic enforcement unit to be led by Sgt. David Sydnor. The unit, which will initially consist of eight to 10 officers, will attempt to combat problems such as speeding, driving through red lights and pedestrian violations.
Sydnor said he hopes to expand his team once the new class of academy recruits arrive in early 2009.
The unit will primarily serve to educate, Sydnor said, and will tend to enforce rules using warnings, but will not rule out the use of tickets and summonses in cases of flagrant violation of the law.
The NHPD’s new traffic unit comes on the heels of the Yale Police Department’s recent traffic and pedestrian safety initiatives, including, most notably, the written warnings issued to students who jaywalk on the streets of New Haven.
Sydnor said there were no specific areas or hotspots being targeted by his unit. Rather, he said, traffic enforcement has truly become a citywide issue. Collecting and analyzing data will help the unit focus on what areas to target, Sydnor said.
But for Sydnor, the fight for stricter traffic enforcement is a personal one. In 2006, his nephew survived a brutal car accident that led to two other fatalities.
“Whether it’s a homicide or a motor-vehicle accident, it doesn’t matter,” Sydnor said. “There’s no difference.”