As the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to investigate corruption in the New Haven Police Department, Mayor John DeStefano announced this week that a private research firm will lead the city’s internal investigations.
Just over a week after two police officers from the city’s narcotics unit were arraigned on corruption charges, DeStefano announced Thursday that the city has enlisted the services of the Police Executive Research Forum to evaluate the NHPD. DeStefano and NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz have sought to maintain confidence in the department following the arrests, but community members have publicly criticized the mayor for his response.
PERF, a national policing research organization, will assess the NHPD’s internal ethics, investigative services, organizational culture and policies, particularly those relating to narcotics investigations, DeStefano announced at a Thursday press conference.
In a statement released by the city, DeStefano said he is optimistic that PERF will help the department as it seeks to regain the community’s trust.
“This process will deliver the best accountability measures by asking the difficult questions about how we can adopt the best practices,” he said in the statement. “From all of this we will emerge with a stronger department that is better able to meet the needs of New Haven’s family.”
An Independent Accountability Team has been created to guide PERF’s work, which the city estimates will take 90 to 100 days. The team includes aldermen, police commissioners, an inspector from the state’s attorney’s office, clergymen and a member of the police union, among others.
The Board of Aldermen must approve the $130,000 cost of PERF’s services, which were set under a no-bid contract.
Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango said he supports the mayor’s plans for the internal investigation of the department.
“I think the mayor is doing the right thing to have qualified people look at this,” he said. “You have a balance of all different ethnicities and professional backgrounds.”
Blango also said that the reputation of a police department of over 300 officers should not be tarnished by two corrupt officers.
Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez said though he thinks the proposal is worthwhile, this year’s tight budget may make it difficult to find funds for the project.
Last week, DeStefano announced the dissolution of the NHPD’s narcotics unit. On March 13, following a months-long FBI sting operation, NHPD Lt. William “Billy” White, who headed the unit, was charged with criminal conspiracy and the theft of thousands of dollars in federal money. Narcotics Detective Justen Kasperzyk was charged with the misdemeanor offense of stealing less than $1,000 in federal funds.
Michael Dearington, the State’s Attorney in New Haven, said his office is scrutinizing pending cases that had been handled by the narcotics division to make sure the state can proceed with prosecutions. Closed cases will also be reviewed if they are brought to the state’s attention.
Several community leaders have criticized the mayor and the NHPD for their handling of the scandal both before and after last week’s raids. Leading critics of DeStefano have included Connecticut and Greater New Haven NAACP president Scot X. Esdaile, ACLU of Connecticut director Roger Vann and African-American Affairs Commission chair Michael Jefferson.
Last week, tensions between DeStefano and Esdaile erupted when the mayor accused Esdaile of trying to shake him down for contract. Esdaile had previously accused the mayor of protecting White’s job in 2005, when Ortiz had sought to transfer him out of the narcotics unit during a reorganization of the department.
Vann said any influence DeStefano may have had on Ortiz’s reversal of his initial decision to transfer White needs to be investigated.
“One public report has Chief Ortiz saying that after he transferred Lt. White he had a lengthy conversation with the mayor about the situation and shortly after he was reinstated,” Vann said. “The context of the situation is that the mayor was running for governor and he soon received the endorsement of the police union and used that to parley other support.”
Both DeStefano and Ortiz have publicly denied that the mayor pressured the chief to reinstate White.
The attempt to transfer White and several other officers prompted a vote of no confidence in Ortiz’s leadership from police officers.
DeStefano said Esdaile made the accusation because the mayor refused to grant the NAACP a $400,000 no-bid contract for a “street outreach worker” program for city youth.
Esdaile was unavailable for comment Friday, but said he would address this and all other issues at a Town Hall Meeting next Tuesday evening at the Elks Club.
Vann said he thinks this episode has confirmed some of the community’s negative suspicions about the NHPD, but that he hopes further investigations will lead to improvements in the department.
“It is again sad confirmation about something that people have been crying out about for years,” he said. “People want and need a department that catches and locks up the bad guys but we cannot have dirty cops undermining [this] … it’s unacceptable.”
He also said he finds it “laughable” that DeStefano and Ortiz expressed such strong shock when the accusations against White were revealed.
Despite the rift that has developed between DeStefano and some of his leading critics, both sides have expressed a desire to improve the NHPD and its image, so that it can regain the community’s trust.
Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the NHPD continues, said Tom Carson, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut. But he declined to comment on any details of the investigation since the arrests of White, Kasperzyk and three bail bondsmen on March 13.