Every day for almost three years, former Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins pinned one star to each lapel of his navy blue Yale Police Department uniform. On Monday, he pinned on three.
Chief Higgins, officially sworn in last Friday, arrived at his office by 8:30 a.m. yesterday, ready for his regular meetings to begin.
Aside from friendly shouts of “Hello, chief,” from his co-workers, Higgins’ morning was “business as usual,” said Executive Assistant Roxanne Dalton, who works in Higgins’ second-floor office. “They’re in and out,” she said. “It’s definitely busy.” But Higgins, she said, is always calm.
Higgins himself admitted he was excited during his first day at the helm.
“I have to be perfectly honest, right now I’m living a dream,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Higgins has risen high above his initial YPD position as an officer patrolling the midnight shift on foot since he joined the force in summer 1997. As chief, Higgins said he seeks to make changes that include improving the employee experience in the department and forging bonds with the New Haven community in the long term.
But as Higgins transitioned into the new role yesterday, he found himself in familiar territory.
Higgins said his new job is “high-energy,” and requires full commitment. His first official workday as chief, however, passed similarly to his last six months as the de facto head of the YPD.
Each morning, Higgins makes the rounds of the YPD headquarters at 101 Ashmun St. — a process he calls “touching base.” In no particular order, Higgins stops by the investigation unit, the dispatchers, the supervisor and the information technology department and greets his co-workers by name. Working under the mantra of, “A short pen is better than a long memory,” Higgins said he often carries note cards on his rounds to jot down suggestions or complaints.
Higgins devotes much of his day to meetings and conversations with University administrators and department staff. Just as when he was assistant chief, Higgins sits down with representatives from Yale Security, University Police, Emergency Management and the Yale College Dean’s Office for a biweekly 9 a.m. meeting on public safety just across the hall from his office.
By 10 a.m., he is back in his new office, surrounded by belongings he moved in over the weekend from his old space next door. He picks up the phone and readies himself for his weekly phone call with his boss, Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner.
High visibility within the Yale community is important to Higgins, who said he will continue to dine in Commons several times a week so that professors and students can see him — as an added benefit, he said, “the food’s great.”
Higgins’ goal of bridging the gap between the community and the department extends to the Dixwell neighborhood surrounding police headquarters on Ashmun Street. To improve the department’s relationship with local residents, Higgins — who already coaches his 5-year-old son’s football team in Hamden — proposed a youth flag football team coached by YPD officers.
Still, these plans are nothing new for Higgins, who insisted that the promotion has changed neither his personality nor his role at YPD: to keep campus safe.
“That’s enough for me,” Higgins said.
‘THE POLICE BUG’
Higgins, 39, is the son of a New Haven Police Department patrolman and grew up just north of New Haven, in Hamden, with his mother and three brothers. As a child and teenager, the police force and the city of New Haven were constants in his life. The Higgins family attended police union Christmas parties and Yale football and basketball games, and Higgins sometimes took the city bus into New Haven to visit his father at NHPD headquarters after football practice at Lyman Hall.
After two years at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Higgins left school and took a job as a corrections officer for pretrial inmates in Fairfield County in 1994.
Provided that his charges agreed not to curse or let their pants sag, Higgins said, he maintained good relationships with the inmates. Higgins said some still say hello when they pass him on the street in New Haven.
As a corrections officer, Higgins said, he still had the “police bug.” He attended the police academy in 1997, and sought a position as a YPD officer on the recommendation of his father.
“I went from jail to Yale,” he said. “It was one of the best moves I ever made.”
He started on the “midnight shift,” patrolling campus on foot from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Lt. Michael Patten, who supervised Higgins, said the new chief’s leadership qualities and inquisitive nature stood out to him.
Higgins said one of the best parts of his job in those days was working with his co-officers at Yale, where there was “always something going on,” from a burst pipe on Old Campus to student calls for help placed from blue security phones on campus.
A year and a half later, Higgins was promoted to sergeant and tasked with supervising the afternoon shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. He continued to ascend, and was appointed assistant to the patrol coordinator in 2000. For the first time, Higgins collaborated with a variety of law enforcement agencies on preparations for the feared Y2K crisis, the aftermath of a bombing at the Yale Law School in 2003 and visits from the Clintons over the years.
In 2006, he completed his undergraduate degree at University of New Haven and was selected by then-Chief James A. Perrotti to attend a 10-week course at the FBI National Academy in Virginia — Higgins still keeps framed memorabilia from the academy on the wall of his office. Upon his return to New Haven, Higgins moved up again to patrol coordinator. Two years later, he applied and was chosen to serve as assistant chief.
“I saw a lot in him,” Perrotti said of Higgins’s rise through the ranks. “He’s smart, hard-working and not afraid to ask questions. I saw a bit of myself in him.”
‘WORK TO DO’
Although Higgins may share many qualities with the YPD’s former head, he brings an increased focus on communication between the department and the University, said John Meeske, associate dean for student organizations and physical resources.
But immediate change may not be on the horizon for the YPD.
“Realistically, not a lot is going to change,” said James Lewis, Higgins’ predecessor and a former NHPD chief. “To a large extent he has been running the department for the past six months.”
Lindner said Higgins will soon promote staff internally to fill several vacant positions. He will also reach out to police officers, administrative staff and union leadership to elicit ideas about how to improve the department, Lindner said.
As Higgins adjusts to the position and begins making major decisions on behalf of the force, Lindner said former Chief Lewis, University administrators and department staff will weigh in and provide extra guidance.
“Chief Lewis is a fount of policing information,” Higgins said, explaining that he will frequently consult his old mentor while establishing his own primary directives.
Higgins said his most important duty as chief is developing the YPD’s three- to five-year plan. He added that he hopes to further reduce crime, and to ensure that community members feel the YPD provides the best services possible.
He said he will interview each of the approximately 85 employees at the YPD headquarters to see how he can improve the workplace, and already had a conversation with one last Saturday as he moved in to his new office.
When Lewis employed a similar survey this summer, he said that he encountered complaints about future officer testing, the state of the equipment and even the look of the bicycle patrol’s current uniforms. Higgins said he is already working on solutions to some of these problems.
Even last Friday, the day of his swearing-in, Higgins said he participated in meetings about illegal parking problems in the wake of multiple snowstorms, the state of the city in the previous 24 hours and the logistics of his own transition.
“There was work to do!” Higgins said.