City passes up chief prospect

City officials are still searching for a successor to New Haven Police Chief James Lewis — but two months ago, they missed the chance to secure a candidate they had been courting who would have brought more than 24 years of public safety experience.

In December, New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 contacted Frank Straub — then the commissioner of public safety for White Plains, N.Y., and formerly a deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack — about becoming New Haven’s top cop. Straub said in an interview Monday that, though he had also been talking with Indianapolis officials about a job as director of public safety at the time, he still would have considered taking the New Haven job if immediately offered.

But Smuts told him he would need to apply for the job as any other candidate would. So Straub, unwilling to wait, took the Indianapolis post.

Smuts said the city has been intent on conducting a thorough search for a new chief and would not offer the job on the spot. City officials are within two weeks of presenting Mayor John DeStefano Jr. with a short list of candidates for police chief, and DeStefano said in an interview Monday that he hopes to name a chief before the end of the month.

Still, by sticking to its selection procedure, the city passed over a nationally acclaimed police official.

Straub, who has a doctorate in criminal justice from the City University of New York, has been the commissioner of public safety for White Plains for the last seven years. In his 24 years of service, he has also served in numerous security positions, including special agent for the U.S. Departments of Justice and State.

New Haven Police Department spokesman Joe Avery declined to comment on the chief selection process. Smuts said the city wanted to consider as many options as possible.

“[Straub] might have been a good candidate. He might not have,” Smuts said.

Either way, Straub had a better offer.

“I was definitely in the mix,” he said Monday. “But when [the city] contacted me, I was very far down the road with Indianapolis.”

Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield said the mayor will discuss the process of finding a new chief at a meeting with the board’s leadership today.

DeStefano said that Smuts, Lewis and Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Richard Epstein are coordinating the search and helping him to review candidates. He is also receiving help from the Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization that conducts research on police departments and offers recommendations for improving performance, Smuts said.

Smuts said PERF has been involved with the current search since late fall, one or two weeks before Lewis officially announced on Dec. 9 his decision to depart. Some of the candidates applied directly to PERF, while the organization recommended the others.

Now Smuts, Lewis and Epstein are interviewing candidates, city officials said. The candidates named to the forthcoming short list will ultimately meet with the mayor.

City officials used PERF in 2008 to help them to find Lewis and to implement sweeping reforms throughout the NHPD, including the revival of its narcotics unit. The unit was dismantled in March 2007 after its previous head, Lt. Billy White, was arrested by FBI agents for numerous corruption charges.

Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, who chairs the aldermanic public safety committee, said Thursday that only one official from inside the department applied to be chief. Assistant Police Chief Peter Reichard applied for the position but retired after being suspended by Lewis last Friday for allegations of improper behavior, Goldfield said.

Until a successor takes office, Assistant Police Chief Stephanie Redding will step in as acting chief when Lewis leaves at the end of the month.

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