Former NHPD chief to lead YPD

James Lewis, shown at a September press conference, stepped down as chief of the New Haven Police Department in February.
James Lewis, shown at a September press conference, stepped down as chief of the New Haven Police Department in February. Photo by Colin Ross.

Less than two months ago, James Lewis left his post as chief of the New Haven Police Department to spend more time with his family in Wisconsin. But now he’s coming back — this time, to the Yale Police.

Like his 20-month stint as NHPD chief, Lewis’s role at the University is temporary. In July, Lewis will return to New Haven to take charge of the Yale Police Department while Yale administrators conduct a national search for a permanent YPD chief and shift the chain of command for the University’s entire security apparatus from the Secretary’s Office to the Human Resources department.

“He’s here because of his stature, his experience and his willingness to pitch in and help while we search for a replacement [for YPD Chief James A. Perrotti],” said Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith, who currently oversees security matters.

Perrotti announced two weeks ago that he will retire at the end of the school year after 37 years as a Yale police officer, including 12 as chief.

Lewis will spend all of July in New Haven learning about the department but will spend only two weeks every month at Yale, and, in his absence, YPD Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins will be responsible for many of the department’s day-to-day activities.

Administrators said they are excited Lewis has agreed to step in, but two NHPD officials said they and some in their department resent that Lewis left them only to come back to New Haven in a Yale uniform.

Lewis said in e-mail Friday that although Yale asked him if he would be interested in the position just before his departure from the NHPD, he did not decide to take it until he was back in Wisconsin. Lewis said the interim job will be ideal for him.

“Yale was able to offer me a flexible position that will allow my wife and I to spend the majority of our time with our family in Wisconsin while still allowing me to assist in an occupation that I enjoy,” he said.

The NHPD found out about Lewis’s appointment on Friday, the day it was announced, spokesman Joe Avery said, and two NHPD officers said the reaction inside the NHPD to Lewis’s return is disappointment.

“I’m very disheartened,” one officer said. “He wouldn’t stay for us, but he’ll come back for Yale? I don’t understand why he’s doing this.”

Lewis was widely popular within the department, and many officers were sorry to see him retire. They said they understood Lewis’s decision because he said it was time for him to return home and spend time with his family.

At the December press conference announcing his departure, Lewis said his daughter had pleaded with him to return home, and his swift return to New Haven has made some NHPD officials question his motivations, two police officials said.

Lewis, for his part, said he never really wanted to leave New Haven.

“If it had been possible to remain in a part-time position with New Haven, I would not have left,” he said.

But a part-time job with New Haven would not have been practical, he said, because the NHPD needed a full-time chief to commit to a full, four-year term.

“For New Haven it would have been for a longer term ,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “Jim Lewis had no interest in a four-year commitment.”

University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer announced Lewis’s appointment in a memo to Yale security and police personnel Friday. In the memo, Lorimer said Lewis’s title will be “interim director of public safety” and that he will not be a candidate for the permanent position of police chief.

Lorimer also announced Friday that the University secretary will no longer be responsible for overseeing the YPD and Yale Security. In July, responsibility for the departments will shift to Human Resources and Administration, headed by Vice President Michael Peel.

Yale police and security officials currently report to Highsmith in the University Secretary’s office, but as of July 1, the officials will report to Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner, a former New Haven chief administrative officer. The Secretary’s Office will retain control of emergency management and security for major events.

Highsmith said the move is a part of a broader effort to balance the responsibilities of all University officers. [See story, page 5.]

Two years ago, Lewis was appointed NHPD chief because of his experience fixing troubled police departments and as NHPD chief he overhauled the department. But Highsmith said Yale did not hire Lewis to reorganize the YPD.

“There’s nothing here that needs fixing,” she said.

If anything, Highsmith said, he has been brought on to continue Perrotti’s improvements.

Lewis is the second former NHPD chief to take a high-ranking Yale security position this year. In January, former chief Francisco Ortiz took over as head of Yale Security’s guard operations.

Highsmith acknowledged that Lewis’s appointment may give the impression that New Haven officials are taking over all Yale security operations, but she made clear that Lewis is helping out during a transitional phase. She added that Lewis has the title of interim director of public safety instead of YPD chief to counter feelings of NHPD overreach. That said, Lewis has the same responsibilities as the YPD chief, she said. He will not be in charge of Yale Security.

Highsmith said administrators are in the process of organizing a national search for a permanent YPD chief that is expected to hit full stride over the summer. She said there will likely be many strong internal candidates, one of whom is expected to be Higgins, who will helping Lewis manage the department.

“If he doesn’t apply, I will nominate him,” Highsmith said.

The last national search, in 1998, took eight months and led to Perrotti’s appointment. Highsmith said the current search could take a similar amount of time and that she expects Lewis to remain with the department through at least the 2010 fall semester.

Lewis oversaw the NHPD during all of 2009, the year with the lowest city crime rate in the 20 years since police began keeping records.

Chicago police veteran Frank Limon was sworn in as NHPD Chief on Monday and has a contract with the city until 2014.

Correction: April 12, 2010

An earlier version of the caption for the photograph accompanying this article misreported when former New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis stepped down from that position. It was in February, not January.

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