Mayor John DeStefano announced a new public safety initiative Thursday that will focus on community policing and expand New Haven’s police force by 20 percent, making the New Haven Police Department the largest in Connecticut.

DeStefano is asking the Board of Aldermen for $1 million to start the two-year expansion, he said at a press conference. Under the plan, the NHPD will add 80 sworn officers and 26 civilian support personnel over the next two years, and it will fill gaps in the higher ranks. The expansion, which will bring the force’s ranks to 490 in total, will increase walking and bicycle beats across the city and will strengthen programs to reduce gun and youth violence.

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DeStefano said he expects that a more visible and community-immersed force will bring the city closer to its goal of becoming the safest city in Connecticut. If all the positions are filled, the city’s number of officers will surpass Bridgeport — Connecticut’s most populous city — and Hartford, which have 415 and 420 officers, respectively.

“The payoff taxpayers should see is walking beats as they have never seen them before, [and] the restoration of patrols such as bike patrols, which have been episodic in the city,” he said. “[This] will give the district managers the time and resources to engage proactively in neighborhoods.”

The additional district-based police officers will most immediately come from phasing out its Information Driven Neighborhood Enforcement Team program, DeStefano said. The program, which was initiated last February, was a flexible force deployed to different areas of the city as deemed necessary. Those officers will return to stations in specific districts.

Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who served as chief of staff under DeStefano’s predecessor John Daniels, said the initiative to increase focus on community policing is long overdue.

“I think it’s a terrifically valuable initiative,” said Rae, who helped implement community policing during his tenure under Daniels. “There are very few things we really know about urban crime, but the single-most important thing in combating crime is civilians, and policing empowers civilians.”

There are currently 406 sworn officers of all ranks in the NHPD, DeStefano said. In 2000, there were 447 officers, but gaps were still present in the department’s staffing, as its budget allowed for 472 positions. Those gaps have persisted, as the budgeted strength for the NHPD this year is 452, DeStefano said.

The NHPD is also in the process of its annual recruitment drive, and DeStefano said he hopes to appoint approximately 45 new cadets in January 2007, followed by a similarly sized group the next year. Assistant Police Chief Stephanie Redding said applicants will be taking their written exam this Saturday. A new class of sergeants was also recently promoted, she said, leaving additional gaps in the lower ranks.

The expansion will lead to increased costs for the city. In addition to the $1 million requested for this fiscal year, DeStefano said, the expansion will cost $2.3 million next year and then $2.6 million in the year after that.

DeStefano said the initiative is worth the additional expenditures.

“My feeling is that if we can demonstrate the kind of visibility, presence and problem solving that citizens can see and touch, that they can consider those investments well-made,” he said. “I think they’re going to be fine if they think they’re getting value for their money.”

Former Mayor John Daniels said that while DeStefano’s initiative is a step forward for combating crime, he has been very disappointed with the current mayor’s handling of crime over the past year.

“As a citizen, I am somewhat baffled at the mayor’s dealing with the crime problem we’ve had here,” he said. “There have been mixed messages over the last year coming out of the Mayor’s Office.”

Daniels said he is frustrated that DeStefano has repeatedly changed his message about how the city is fighting crime and how effective these tactics have been throughout the year. He also said he is disappointed with the way the city has handled the increase in youth crime.

“There are no jobs, there are no recreational facilities for these kids,” he said. “Adding 85 officers will not solve the problem of youth violence or violence at all … first we have to provide resources and facilities for these kids.”

At the conference, Ortiz denied that the NHPD has ever turned away from community policing. But he said that decreases in federal funding in the past few years have made it difficult to keep up with changing crime trends.

“The Feds have told the local police departments to bite the bullet, [and] it’s been going on for too long,” he said. “This mayor and this city won’t tolerate this type of nonsense. We’re going to do something in New Haven.”

According to statistics released by the city, crime has dropped 40 percent in New Haven over the last 13 years, though crime rates were fairly stable between 2000 and 2005.

DeStefano said there has been a seven percent decrease in crime over the past year. Shootings went down by 18 percent, he said, but the murder rate rose significantly, particularly among young males, with 20 committed this year as opposed to 13 in 2005. DeStefano and NHPD officials said they hope to see dramatic decreases in crime over the next few years.

In order to combat the increased youth violence trend, the plan also calls for developing and strengthening partnerships with groups like Mentor New Haven and the Greater New Haven NAACP, which provide various resources for teenagers ranging from mentoring to employment counseling. The city will also work with the Yale Child Study Center to try to better understand youth issues and how to handle them.

More details about the study and its results will be announced toward the end of the year, DeStefano said.

Yale Police Department Lt. Michael Patten said that while the NHPD expansion will not strongly affect the YPD or Yale, the expansion is great for New Haven.

“They’re very dispatch-driven and don’t really have [as much] time to talk to the community,” he said. “They [will be able to] spend more time in the community.”

Like Redding, Patten also said expansion will make the department and its officers — who he said currently often have to work a lot of overtime — more efficient in the coming years.

“It’s also a cost to the officers to be out there on overtime,” he said. “It will be cost effective both fiscally and physically.”

The Board of Aldermen will decide whether to approve the funding request in the coming weeks.

—Lea Yu contributed reporting for this article.