After more than 34 years in the New Haven Police Department, Chief Melvin Wearing officially announced his retirement Thursday — and his intention to work on his handicap.

Wearing, 59, who has served as chief since 1997, will leave the police force at the end of the month. While Assistant Chief Francisco Ortiz will serve as acting chief following Wearing’s retirement, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said he expected to hire a permanent chief by June 1.

At a City Hall press conference attended by over 60 people — many of them uniformed police officers — Wearing said he was proud of his record as New Haven’s police chief.

“It’s a sad, bittersweet thing for me,” Wearing said. “But it’s time for me to go.”

In their remarks at the press conference, both Wearing and DeStefano said the outgoing chief’s tenure has been marked by a focus on “community policing.” Since he took office, Wearing developed partnerships with the Yale Child Study Center and other agencies to develop a “proactive” approach to preventing crime.

“We have accomplished a lot in this community,” Wearing said. “Community policing is here to stay.”

DeStefano, who said the city’s crime rate has dropped over 40 percent since Wearing took office, attributed the success of the department to Wearing’s ability to foster cooperation.

“Everyone had a role under this chief in improving the quality of life by reducing crime,” DeStefano said. “The capability, the talent, the quality and the diversification of the New Haven Police Department grew exponentially under this chief.”

Wearing was the first black chief in the history of the NHPD, but DeStefano said considering Wearing in racial terms “missed the point.”

“Mel Wearing has been a terrific chief, who happened to be a black man,” DeStefano said.

While Wearing said his immediate plans included playing golf and remaining involved with community programs, he said he had not made definite plans for the future. Wearing, who said the decision to retire was “spontaneous,” will receive a $20,000 early retirement package that the city offered to its longest-serving police officers.

With Wearing’s retirement, Ortiz emerges as the clear frontrunner to replace Wearing permanently. Although he emphasized the need for an “open” search, DeStefano said Ortiz — who was appointed assistant chief only two months ago — would be a top contender in the search for a new chief.

“I think Chief Ortiz is a strong candidate for the position, and I’ll say that here,” DeStefano said.

A committee chaired by Karen DuBois-Walton, the city’s chief administrative officer, will be entrusted with reviewing applicants for the position and forwarding a short list of three candidates to the mayor. DeStefano will make the final decision.

DuBois-Walton said the committee will look for candidates who can continue Wearing’s work in the department while persevering through difficult fiscal times for the city.

“I think community policing is such a hallmark of where the department has gone and where we’re looking to be, so we’re definitely looking for someone with a community policing background,” DuBois-Walton said. “The way you keep community policing fresh is to continue to introduce new ideas and new partnerships.”

But until a new chief is appointed, Ortiz said the department would maintain many of the practices he helped develop with Wearing during the outgoing chief’s tenure.

“I think we’re going to continue with a lot of the strategies and philosophies he put into place,” Ortiz said. “There’s a commitment to building our community.”