UP CLOSE | A tough year for NHPD chief

Frank Limon, who transferred from River Forest, Ill. in April, has faced criticism from a number of sources during his tenure in New Haven.
Frank Limon, who transferred from River Forest, Ill. in April, has faced criticism from a number of sources during his tenure in New Haven. Photo by Joy Chen.

Frank Limon could not have known what the Elm City had in store for him.

It has been a tough year for New Haven’s police chief, ever since he arrived on April 5, 2010. Budgetary issues, union struggles, and a rise in violent crime have all marred the public and internal cohesion of the city’s police force — and no one in the department has been as maligned as Limon. The chief’s officers have marched out of the building while on duty, told citizens to arm themselves in the wake of budget cuts, voted “No Confidence” in their leadership, and even called for their chief’s dismissal.

“The first year was a tough one for me,” Limon told the News.

Yet despite these hardships, Limon has mostly weathered the storm of criticism and scandal. He remains the head of the NHPD with strong backing from Mayor John DeStefano Jr., even installing new department leadership by hiring three new assistant chiefs despite aldermanic disapproval.

In fact, since February — when the public and internal perceptions of Limon’s leadership were at an all-time low — the chief has led a successful campaign of community relations and made significant departmental changes, including a restructured call system and new training for investigators.

Limon says things have been looking up. The investigative division has increased the number of murders suspects apprehended, he said, and the department is beginning to reap dividends on extensive community outreach programs that make patrols safer and investigations easier for the rank and file. The chief said he hopes that these developments will ultimately raise departmental morale and strengthen the public image of the NHPD.

“In any organization it takes time to develop trust, and get used to a management style. But time heals everything,” Limon said. “I’m here with some innovative strategies, and over time [the officers and the public] will be able to judge me better.”

The concept of learning was central in his first year as chief, Limon said, and he said he now feels prepared to implement the entirety of his vision.

Still, some continue to doubt Limon’s ability to deliver on his promises to improve the department. NHPD Union President Sgt. Louis Cavaliere said that Limon has yet to adopt a single new idea, and has instead only borrowed strategies from New Haven’s community policing past. Furthermore, Cavaliere said that Limon’s talk of an eventual turning point in both morale and crime levels may well be fictitious — since both still show signs of becoming worse.

On Wednesday, two more city residents —the 12th and 13th this year — became murder victims. The murder count is already equal to 2009’s total and on pace to exceed 2010’s 24 homicides. The period since March 1 has been the city’s most violent two-month stretch in at least nine years.

Some see this rise in murders as evidence that Limon’s strategy isn’t working.

“The chief has not brought new creative ideas to the rank and file. We’re running the same as we always have — I haven’t seen him do anything positive for this city,” Cavaliere said.

The department may also soon find itself ill-equipped to fight rising crime levels as both Limon and DeStefano have said publicly that the department will see significant cuts next fiscal year.

Limon is not claiming perfection.

“It was a challenge,” he said. “I didn’t come with a magic wand.”

ENTER THE CHIEF

When DeStefano brought in Limon from his post as Chief in River Forest, Ill., City Hall’s primary crime concerns centered on rising levels of gun violence. At the time, New Haven had just seen eight murders and 21 non-fatal shootings in March and April 2010, and the city was on high alert.

In addition to Limon’s background in patrol and criminal investigations, DeStefano said he was drawn to Limon because he was not an internal candidate.

“Frank was not from the NHPD, which is commentary enough on how I felt the department was doing at the time,” DeStefano said. “We did not have anyone at the time who could have been promoted to chief.”

Limon said that the mayor tasked him with three specific goals upon entering the department: increase the number of solved crimes by improving major crimes investigations, reinvigorate community engagement programs, and increase police accountability.

“This department has been in a state of continuous flux in the past couple years,” Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Richard Epstein said. “We brought in Chief Limon to change this department for the better and take it to the next level.”

DeStefano said his primary concern was solely that the chief create a “general sense of order” in the city.

But within the scheme of general order, Limon was also tasked to control a department with a long history of corruption, accusations of brutality, and an increasingly sparse budget. The perception of the department was so negative that members of the neighboring Yale Police Department union have distinguished themselves by telling students that they are the ones who do not hurt students.

Compounding his problems, the chief faced a public with minimal faith in the city government and even less in the police.

“The streets are dangerous, but so are the police,” Newhallville resident Steven Echols said. “Some [of the police] do their jobs but others take it to an extreme; they will jump on me and my friends if they just see us walking around.”

With such attitudes the prevailing norm in high-crime neighborhoods, Limon faced an uphill battle in meeting the mayor’s goal of building a bridge between the NHPD and the public. But the community played an even bigger role in Limon’s planning for his first year as chief, he said.

In order to address his department’s goals of decreasing violent crime and boosting investigations, Limon said, he decided that the department had to return to its community policing roots. Without a good neighborhood rapport, he explained, officers are rarely able to solicit investigative leads.

“People in the community don’t want to be seen talking to a cop because they’ll be labeled a snitch,” Sgt. Max Joyne, the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver Hill district manager, said at a NHPD community dialogue in March.

LIMON MEETS YALE

Limon’s theories of community policing were put to the test in September when, after a summer of relative quiet, the NHPD was faced with mounting violence in the downtown area, an unexpected problem for Limon.

“Apparently [downtown violence] was something that had been a problem for a while,” Limon said in March. “But it was not brought to my attention as a problem at the beginning.”

An early morning three-way gunfight that included two men shooting at NHPD officers erupted on College Street on Sept. 19. In the wake of this incident and 20 other shootings over two months, DeStefano announced “Project Nightlife,” a police campaign to combat downtown violence and general disorder.

This crackdown on previously tolerated behavior brought NHPD into direct conflict with the Yale community in the second weekend of “Project Nightlife.”

Early on the morning of Oct. 2, approximately 20 NHPD officers, some wearing SWAT gear, entered the Elevate Lounge night club where Morse College and Ezra Stiles College were holding their annual “Screw” dance.

Students who were at the scene accused the police of using excessive force, profanity, threats and sequestering students in the club for over an hour. Five people were arrested at the raid; three students were taken to jail, and one was first treated at Yale-New Haven Hospital for injuries sustained from a Taser during his arrest.

Administrators and students immediately condemned the police actions during the raid. A Facebook group called “I Witnessed Police Brutality at the Morse-Stiles Screw” was created in less than a day, and a student response committee was formed by campus leaders and members of the Morse and Stiles student councils.

Much of the criticism about the raid surrounded the tasering and arrest of Jordan Jefferson ’13, whom police arrested for allegedly trying to strike several officers, though four eyewitnesses told the News that they witnessed the encounter and did not see anything that they felt warranted arrest. The final internal affairs report on the incident, released March 3, faulted the top-ranking officer at the raid, Assistant Chief of Patrol Ariel Melendez, for poor leadership and planning. Melendez retired in January.

“This incident has brought our attention to the very serious issue of police brutality in New Haven, and we intend to stay involved in fighting it,” said Seth Bannon, one of the students charged with crimes during the raid.

Limon — who was present outside the club that night — tried to make the best of the Elevate incident, but he admitted that relations with the University were damaged.

“I was committed to restoring a trusting relationship with students,” Limon said in March of the raid’s aftermath. “[The incident] presented itself as an opportunity to improve our relationship with the University.”

Students, however, were not so quick to forgive. Members of the student response committee to the Elevate raid helped form the Citizens for Policing Reform with other New Haven residents. The group held an Oct. 23 rally against perceived incidents of New Haven police brutality outside of City Hall and the NHPD headquarters on Union Avenue. The rally attracted approximately 75 people and drew significant media attention.

PROBLEMS WITH THE UNION

Limon was soon facing similar image problems within his department.

As part of his push to change the department’s policing model, Limon said he that he sought to create an structured “paramilitary division of labor.” This strategy brought him into conflict with the NHPD’s rank and file union, Limon said, which resented the tighter management structure. On Jan. 20, the union voted to hold a “No Confidence” vote against its chief for what Union President Cavaliere called “a serious leadership problem,” citing issues such as Limon’s seemingly out-of-touch manner and poor management skills.

Cavaliere and the other union executive board members accused Limon of wanting to work outside of the rank and file contract because of a pre-existing distrust for unions.

“They have a non-union attitude in Chicago,” Cavaliere said of Limon’s policing background.

The vote, which was held Feb. 3, was a landslide 246 to 21 referendum against the chief.

“[Limon’s management] is keeping the officers from doing their jobs,” said union attorney Richard Gudis. “Limon manages by fear and intimidation, and most troubling, he fails to obey the [collective bargaining] laws.”

Cavaliere said he believed the vote showed that Limon was not qualified to run a department, adding that morale under the chief was at an “all-time low,” a sharp departure from the high morale under Limon’s predecessor, James Lewis, who later took over as head of the YPD.

Limon said that he didn’t let the “No Confidence” vote shake his confidence as a chief. Instead, he said he saw the vote as a part of department politics, and made a point of not changing his methods after the vote.

“I’m looking at things objectively and fairly. If you look at department politics, you get on a slippery slope,” Limon said. “I was very fair in my application of what I have chosen to address.”

DeStefano agreed with the chief that the “No Confidence” vote was not indicative of Limon’s abilities as chief, noting that three out of the past five chiefs have had “No Confidence” votes against them during the beginning of their tenures.

The mayor has remained publicly complimentary of Limon through all of his difficulties, laying the blame for the NHPD’s problems on departmental history and the city’s economic troubles.

Cavaliere said that Mayor and Limon did not learn the necessary lesson from the vote, and that the chief’s “brazen attitude” continues to hurt the department.

“Before the vote, [Limon] wasn’t doing what he should have been doing as a chief,” the union president said. “Now he’s back to what he was before: not answering grievances, and not dealing one-on-one with the rank and file. He doesn’t care about being liked — that’s wrong for a chief.”

To make matters worse, on Feb. 17 DeStefano announced that City Hall would fire 16 officers to help balance the budget. The union took to the streets.

Led by the 16 officers who lost their jobs, more than 200 police officers walked into Limon’s office to protest the layoffs, and then marched in protest from police headquarters to City Hall that morning. When they arrived, the officers and their union leaders told members of the media and passersby that civilians should arm themselves in the wake of a depleted police force.

This prompted a new round in the union’s criticism of Limon — this time Cavaliere alleged that he was ineffectual and the mayor’s pawn. Limon argued that he had tried to help the officers.

“This is one of the hardest days of my 34 year career,” he said at a press conference about the layoffs.

Still, Limon also criticized the rank and file for their actions that day, calling the march “irresponsible.”

While the department went through internal struggles, the city’s murder toll rose to 24 homicides, or 84.6 percent more than 2009. As both shootings and murders rose in the final three months of 2010, some citizens admonished the NHPD for not instilling a sense of general order despite its hard-line efforts in “Project Nightlife.”

“There have been many more shootings near me lately,” said Evelyn Folson, a James Hillhouse High School student who lives on Winthrop Avenue in Dwight. “The shootings are getting too close for my comfort. And if the shooting keeps going on, I guess the police aren’t doing their jobs well.”

At the year-end meeting in January 2011, Limon announced a 1 percent overall decrease in crime, but expressed his dissatisfaction with the high murder toll. Although both DeStefano and Limon were quick to point out that 11 of the 24 murders took place during the first four months of 2010 — before or immediately after the Chief had been sworn in — Limon pledged to do better.

“You can’t predict murders,” Limon said in January. “The only thing you can predict is your strategy and your abilities to employ your resources, and if you employ them in the right way … they work.”

REACHING OUT

With the union up in arms against its leadership, violent crime on the rise and community relations damaged, February was shaping up to be the worst month in Limon’s career as chief.

“Things may have been tough, but I haven’t had a low point — I’ve got some tough DNA,” Limon said. “I like what I do.”

Instead of adjusting to union complaints, Limon said he stuck to his original plans for community policing.

Beginning March 30, Limon began the second round of community dialogues in his efforts to solicit the public’s suggestions and criticisms. At the first meeting at Barnard School on Derby Avenue, the chief said he received four major directives from the community: clean up the streets, make overly-aggressive officers accountable for their actions, create programs for the youth, and make communication with the department easier.

Instead of regarding these complaints as simple suggestions, Limon said he has considered these points some of his primary missions as chief — all with the goal of building public trust.

“We’re all in this together,” he told the group. “At the end of the day, we all want the same thing — a safe neighborhood.”

In addition to the community dialogues, Limon has also implemented special community policing sessions with clergy members in Dwight and Newhallville. He explained that department needs to target “major stakeholders” in the community, and the clergy present an ideal opportunity to forward a positive image of the police.

“When I first got here the community didn’t trust us, they didn’t want to talk to police,” Limon said. “But there are community groups that can help.”

Many community members have taken notice of the chief’s efforts. All 15 of the non-Yale-affiliated and non-NHPD-affiliated New Haven residents interviewed by the News at community meetings and on the street said that they felt community-police relations are getting better.

“I think the chief has given us a wonderful opportunity to begin building relationships,” said Shirley Ellis-West, the supervisor for the Street Outreach Workers.

Echols, a Newhallville resident, said that Limon is unequivocally better than his two immediate predecessors because he had never even heard of Lewis or former Chief Francisco Ortiz ever going out into the community.

“They’re doing what they can,” said Bishop Theodore Brooks, pastor of Beulah Heights Frist Pentecostal Church in the Dixwell neighborhood, of the police. “Limon is honing a pathway to try and create a good relationship between the police and the community, and he’s been working very hard at that since he [came to New Haven].”

But not all community members are enamored with the NHPD. Maurice “Blest” Peters, a New Haven resident and community activist, said he thought that the police should take a softer approach in their dealings with the community.

“The police are not creating safety in our neighborhoods — they’re creating terror,” Peters said. “People are afraid of the police.”

Still, even the anti-police brutality group Citizens for Policing Reform has have come out in favor of the chief.

Frank Cochran, a local New Haven lawyer and community activist, said that he was impressed that Limon was the first chief in over 40 years, by his estimates, that had wanted to hear from the community directly.

“The chief came in here and said, ‘I need to learn a lot as soon as possible,’” Cochran said. “I liked his vision when he first came into town and I like it now.”

LOOKING AHEAD

After a tough first year as chief, Frank Limon remains as the head of the department. But he is still on thin ice.

“A failure at this point — since the department is so fragile now — would be terrible for the NHPD and the city,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Epstein said at the board’s most recent meeting.

But Limon has reached another important milestone this month: he has nominated three new assistant chiefs from within the department to help shoulder the burden of leading the chaotic department.

With a new team at his side, Limon has addressed or begun to respond to all four major criticisms from the community dialogues, and he said he believes he has made strides towards meeting the mayor’s initial goals.

Limon said that he has been working on increasing the NHPD’s task-force operations in order to gain the assistance of federal agencies in a variety of investigative capacities. This practice has come to the forefront of media attention when successful partnerships with the FBI led to the March 5 capture of the alleged “East Coast Rapist,” and several major drug busts since November. These partnerships increase NHPD accountability and cut costs for the department.

But even here, Limon faces criticism. Although the multi-department partnerships may make for good press, Cavaliere said, but they violate the union’s right to be in charge of its own geographic domain, adding that the union has filed a complaint about the partnerships.

In 2010, New Haven saw 24 homicides, and only three had been solved when Limon was sworn in. Since then, the department made arrests in 10 more homicides in 2010. Additionally, the Investigations Division has solved four of 10 incidents this year, and two of the most recent murders have “solid leads,” according to Limon. The newly minted Cold Case Unit, which Limon installed, also solved its first case in April.

Limon said he considers this track record a personal success.

“He seems to be a pleasant person to work with, but we’ve probably got one of the worst years ever going now,” Cavaliere said. “From what I’ve heard, the public isn’t any happier in their neighborhoods. Crime may be down a percentage point or two, but the communities are of course not safer.”

But with one year of turmoil and tenuous progress behind him, Limon said he is looking forward to his second year as chief.

“We’re moving in the right direction now,” Limon said. “When [the public and the other officers] see the things we’re changing, there will be a turnaround in the level of public confidence and morale.”

But regardless of Limon’s plans, successes and failures, New Haven, its police department, its crime problem and its neighborhoods remain complex and ever-shifting; few expect one man, even the police chief, to save or doom the city. And even his strongest supporters say that Limon is grappling with problems that will outlast his tenure.

“The chief has done a good job, but we still have a ways to go as a community,” DeStefano said.

Comments

  • Elifan

    Wow, great article and well written. That’s journalism!