Former New Haven Police Department Lt. William “Billy” White, who headed the department’s narcotics unit for more than a decade, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to commit bribery and theft of government property.

White’s change of plea status — he pleaded not guilty shortly after his arrest last March — may result in a lesser sentence than if had he not changed his plea and had then been found guilty. White’s decision follows close on the heels of guilty pleas by former NHPD Detectives Jose Silva and Justen Kasperzyk, two other subjects of the federal investigation.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”13295″ ]

Following White and Kasperzyk’s arrest, the NHPD disbanded the narcotics unit and the city hired the Police Executive Research Forum to evaluate the NHPD. At forums since the original arrests, some city residents expressed frustration with a department they said has lost sight of community policing.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the three former police officers do not represent the general conduct of the rest of New Haven’s police force.

“It’s important for the community to understand that this is three officers who did despicable things,” Mayorga said. “These … officers do not represent the hard work of those 400 other officers.”

White has been charged with one count of bribery conspiracy — for which he faces up to five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine — and two counts of government property theft, which could lead to 10 years and $250,000 in penalties. White must also pay restitution for the stolen federal and local funds and forfeit the money he gained from the bribery conspiracy, which will total over $25,000.

But the guilty plea affords White the benefit of a potential reduction of his Adjusted Offense Level, making 37 to 46 months imprisonment and a fine between $7,500 and $75,000 the most probable punishment. White is also subject to three years of supervised release after his prison term ends.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation began its undercover operation in July 2006, when a clandestine Connecticut State Police Sergeant began working with White, the supervisor of NHPD’s Narcotics Enforcement Unit at the time. Several incidents — including an FBI sting operation on Jan. 31, 2007 — confirmed White’s participation in unlawful acts and culminated in his indictment.

The FBI planted about $27,500 in a car with hidden cameras and microphones during its sting operation, luring White to the scene with a tip from the undercover agent’s informant. During this first encounter, White searched the trunk and removed $5,000 of the cash, professing he would not steal all of the funds in order to protect the informant’s safety. But later in the day, White, thinking the money belonged to a drug dealer, returned to the car and stole all of the money, splitting the stolen funds with the unnamed undercover officer.

In at least two other instances while under FBI surveillance, White made similar decisions to steal money from residences in New Haven while executing search or arrest warrants. Both times, he split the stolen money with the undercover agent.

In order to determine whether the guilty plea of his own accord and not due to external threats, United States District Judge Janet Arterton asked both White and his attorney, Hubert Santos, basic questions about White’s competence of mind.

White’s attorney Hubert Santos said he had been having trouble communicating with White due to the former officer’s emotional trauma, but Santos said White’s ability to understand his legal situation was not compromised.

“He is competent and understands exactly what the circumstances are,” Santos said. “But he has been in [a] very bad state emotionally … with bouts of intermittent depression.”

White did not acknowledge any difficulty in communicating with Santos, but he did admit to seeing a psychiatrist and taking Zoloft, a prescription antidepressant.

A ‘Cowboy-Like’ Cop

Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison, who interacted with White throughout his career in the NHPD, said White’s approach to countering the drug problem in New Haven might have contributed to his legal and psychological burn-out. Mattison said White would give out his cell phone number and tell his fellow officers that he would show up immediately if called anytime during the day or night.

“He had this notion … that he was single-handedly [going to] wipe out drug use in New Haven, and clearly that was not going to happen,” Mattison said. “But his whole approach to the thing was cowboy-like in that way … He kind of saw himself as the savior, and as the savior, anything he did was OK.”

White’s work in the NHPD drastically improved New Haven from its state of affairs in the 1970s, when open-air drug markets in public areas were common because the sheer number of drug dealers made it impossible for the police to address the problem systematically, Mattison said.

White responded “a la vigilante style,” eventually forcing drug sales into the private realm, Mattison said.

“People are grateful to him: This is a town that had a wide-open drug trade, and he closed it down,” Mattison said. “Because he was so successful in that, he really did believe that he could solve the drug problem … when he wasn’t out there being Rambo, he was a very charming and interesting person … [but] as often happens with saviors, they forget what the limits are.”

But Mattison said White’s lack of strategies and priorities made him more a part of the problem than the solution. In a modern context, the availability of drugs is too prevalent for White’s broad, sweeping goals to affect the positive change they once did, he said.

As Chair of the Community Development Committee, Mattison said he hopes White’s example will spark community dialogue about specific priorities to adopt in fighting the war on drugs.

“What we need out of the police department at this time is much more transparency and much more willingness to talk about what the priorities are — what’s the goal, and how we can tell if we’ve accomplished it,” he said.

But the Mayor’s Office has more general goals in the aftermath of this scandal, Mayorga said.

“It is tempting to say that this is the end of a sorry chapter, but we need to learn from this experience and understand how this situation was allowed to happen and corrupt other officers,” Mayorga said. “This doesn’t end until we emerge as a stronger city government and police department.”

New Haven officials are waiting for the final report of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization hired by the city to comprehensively review its police operations. PERF released a preliminary draft in August, and an independent panel appointed by the city reviewed the recommendations. Mayorga said the city will begin implementing aspects of the final report once it is released.

Kevin J. O’Connor, U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, and Kimberly Mertz, the FBI Special Agent in charge of the investigation, were both present at the proceedings. The case is being prosecuted by Nora Dannehy and David Ring, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

White’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 14, 2008.