Newly-announced Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins describes himself as a “community guy,” someone who likes to get out of his office and interact with his officers. But he is quick to admit that he will also visit YPD headquarters on most Sunday nights, just to see how everyone is doing.
After a two-month national search and an extensive interviewing process, Higgins was told he got the job while at work last Wednesday. The next day, his name was announced to the Yale community. Now, Higgins has already begun developing the agenda for his first months as YPD chief. In addition to reassessing the department’s overall patrol strategy, Higgins said he also plans to implement a greater sense of community between the YPD and the surrounding neighborhoods. But although these tasks loom ahead, Higgins said he is enjoying his moment.
“Wow, this is really happening,” he said. “I had prepared for this moment my entire career.”
Higgins’s goal will come to fruition on Feb. 4 when he is officially sworn in by University President Richard Levin at YPD headquarters. Afterwards, Higgins said he intends to reassess the procedure and long term goals of the YPD. To assist in this process, Yale has hired former New Haven Police Department Chief and current Interim Head of Public Safety James Lewis to stay on campus for several months and help develop a departmental plan for the next three to five years.
Although Lewis is tasked with developing the long-term, Higgins is making plans of his own.
Higgins said he also plans to reevaluate the department’s deployment strategy because he believes he can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the YPD patrols. He added that the Yale campus spans several different communities which each call for a unique approach.
Yet as Higgins begins to assume his new role as chief of police, he will leave a vacancy at the number two position.
The search for an assistant chief will begin soon after the swearing in, Higgins said. He added that all six YPD lieutenants will be eligible for the position, and that he anticipates a decision “very soon.”
With all the distractions of a new job, a new assistant chief and a reformulation of departmental strategy, Higgins was initially unsure of what his number one goal was when asked by the News in YPD headquarters on Friday afternoon. But about an hour later, he e-mailed his answer.
“Our number-one priority is to keep our community safe,” he said.
Higgins, 39, has policing in his blood. His father, a retired New Haven Police Department lieutenant, influenced him to consider the career at a young age, he said.
Higgins’s first experience with the law was as a corrections officer at the Bridgeport Correctional Facility. At this post, Higgins said he gained valuable experience and gleaned an appreciation for the criminal justice system. He also excelled: he was named the “Corrections Officer of the Year” in 1996, he said.
Yet it was during this time that Higgins said he “caught the bug”: he wanted to be a police officer. Higgins’s father suggested that he join the Yale police force as opposed to the NHPD, and in 1997, Higgins too the advice.
“It was one of the best moves I ever made,” he said. “And the rest is history.”
Back in New Haven, Higgins met his future wife, Robin Higgins, who is now a sergeant in the NHPD Internal Affairs division. The couple has two children: Rihanna, 8, and RJ, who is almost 6 years old.
Higgins, who played outside linebacker at Western Connecticut State University, coaches RJ’s flag football team. He said he is looking to bring the sport to the Ella B. Scantlebury Playground across from the YPD headquarters for children in the Dixwell community.
“[Higgins] is a very imposing guy; he looks like he could be in the NFL,” Lewis said. “But he relates really well to people.”
The YPD currently helps out with community efforts such as New Haven Reads and the Dixwell-Yale Community Center, but Higgins said that he plans to involve the department in more focused programs.
“I’m motivated by a willingness to work with people,” he said. “It’s all about the people.”
Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner said it was his desire for community-based initiatives that she found particularly appealing about Higgins as a candidate. She added that his status as a long-term resident of New Haven and knowledge of the unique challenges facing the city helped separate Higgins from his competitors.
After joining the YPD, Higgins quickly rose through the ranks. After only two years on the force, he was promoted to sergeant, and in 2004 he became a lieutenant and a shift commander for the Patrol Division. In 2008, Higgins was named Assistant Chief under then-Chief James A. Perrotti.
After Perrotti retired, Yale hired former New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis to oversee YPD administration on a part-time basis. But although he was not the official head, Higgins assumed some of the duties of the chief at the beginning of the semester: whenever a crime occurred on or near campus the Yale community received an e-mail from Higgins, not Lewis.
Yet despite having been given some responsibilities, Higgins was not assured the position of chief. Beginning in November, Lindner led a national search for the new chief, she said.
Yale placed a job posting on Yale’s human resources website, the Chronicle of Higher Education and advertised with some law enforcement associations, such as the Police Executive Research Forum.
After receiving 96 applications for the position, Lindner and Lewis reviewed the candidates and narrowed the field down to 5 finalists, she said. These finalists, two of which included internal candidates, then met with senior administrators for interviews, she added.
Jonathan Hollaway, who along with Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Michael Peel, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, Deputy Secretary for the University Martha Highsmith, Yale Health’s Chief Psychiatrist Dr. Lorraine Siggins and Yale School of Medecine Director of Institutional Planning and Communications Mary Hu, met with the finalists, said that he thought Higgins was the right choice.
“I think it’s fantastic, I’m a big fan of the chief,” he said.
Lindner and Lewis both told the News that Higgins was their first choice.
“You really want the best candidate,” Lindner said. “But it is infinitely more satisfying if the best candidate is internal.”
The department’s last national search for chief in 1998 also led to the internal promotion of the YPD’s then-assistant chief, James Perrotti. That search took eight months.