Well that didn’t take long.
Like many marriages, the union between the city and its new police chief is going through a rocky patch just after the honeymoon, and the relationship’s future is not clear.
The November swearing-in ceremony of the chief, Dean Esserman, was held in the spacious first floor of City Hall. The event was so elaborate that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. joked that it was fitting that the ceremony took place on a Friday, the most popular day for weddings at City Hall. His joke was on the mark. The hundreds of guests sat on white chairs with an aisle running down the center. The attendees were even split into two general groups: law enforcement officials and crime experts familiar with the chief’s past experiences — the Esserman family — and the community residents and activists eager for a fresh start — the New Haven family. And it was a joyous affair. City officials talked of rebirth and rejuvenation. Even usually-skeptical activists welcomed their new partner.
International police superstar William J. Bratton, who turned around dismal crime situations in New York and Los Angeles, was there to preside over the union. Other than for a brief embarrassing moment when he seemed to think he was in Hartford, his gravitas conferred legitimacy and blessing on the happy couple.
Yet all this pomp and circumstance obscured the basic truth: This was an arranged marriage. Even the wedding’s presider, Bratton, admitted as much when he praised the wisdom of the mayor and said DeStefano had made a “wonderful selection” — not the wisdom of a united community in deciding on a way forward, but the wisdom of one man. DeStefano picked Esserman for understandable reasons: Esserman’s service as an assistant chief in New Haven in the 1990’s and his solid record of crime reduction here and elsewhere.
But he did so in a secretive, unaccountable way: The previous chief was simply sent packing on a Friday night and by Tuesday — hey presto! — the city had a new chief. The Board of Aldermen was not consulted, nor were other community leaders. City residents didn’t protest too loudly because they were wooed by Esserman’s promises of renewed community policing. Though residents were treated as the children in this marriage and kept out of the decision-making process, they trusted Daddy DeStefano’s soothing words about Esserman: You’re going to love him. But the lack of true commitment meant that when the first sign of trouble appeared, the kids would wonder what dad had gotten them into.
That trouble reared its ugly head this week when Esserman announced he was dumping all three current Assistant Chiefs and would find his own. In other words: Sorry, but the new arrival doesn’t like your friends and doesn’t want them hanging around the house anymore. These weren’t dead-beat friends either. One, Petisia Adger, is a 20-year veteran with life-long ties to the city and is the highest-ranking black female the NHPD has ever had. Several community activists who supported Esserman initially met outside police headquarters Monday to protest the decision to force her to retire or resign. In December, I saw Adger interact with residents at a community meeting in the Dixwell neighborhood, where she grew up: It was obvious that she is a local star and a symbol for many that the NHPD believes in cooperation with the community. Now she’ll soon be gone — a casualty of Esserman’s arrival.
The forced departures revealed deeper problems in the New Haven-Esserman relationship. As the News reported on Monday, Esserman’s management style seems to have already rubbed NHPD veterans the wrong way. In December, another Assistant Chief, John Velleca, retired and all insisted that the decision had nothing to do with Esserman. But a source told the News that the word in the department is that a dispute between the two men that led to an angry email exchange was the real reason.
Esserman and New Haven need some marriage mediators. I nominate the Board of Aldermen. As DeStefano so forcibly demonstrated when he hired Esserman, the Board has no legal power to approve police leadership and so can easily be sidelined. And the alderpeople are also, justifiably, very results-oriented. As Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12 told me in an email, she believes the real issue is whether police officials are committed to real community policing. She wouldn’t comment on increasing explicit Board authority on the process of selecting police leadership or on the Assistant Chief issue, citing lack of knowledge of the details of the situation.
Results do matter, but so does the process that produces them. Until the Board asserts itself and brings some order to the process of selecting police leadership, efforts to reduce crime in New Haven will be hampered by all the drama and hurt feelings that an arranged marriage can cause.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.