It took two retirements — one 12 years ago and another, effective at the end of today — but Francisco Ortiz is finally ready to put away his New Haven Police Department badge.
After 30 years of serving in the Elm City, including five as chief of police, Cisco — as he is affectionately nicknamed by his colleagues and city residents — is cleaning out his desk and making way for someone new to lead one of Connecticut’s largest police departments. His road to the top was in many ways conventional, but it was not without twists, turns and dead ends. A vote of no confidence against Ortiz by the police union, the deaths of officers on duty, a corruption scandal in the NHPD narcotics unit and overseeing an overall drop in city crime made managing a department of roughly 400 officers a round-the-clock job.
Starting April 21, Ortiz will be moving to Yale to manage public security for the University’s West Campus, which the University acquired from the Bayer Healthcare last September.
As a child of Puerto Rican immigrants, a product of public housing and public education and a civil servant since the age of 18, Ortiz said in an interview Thursday that he is grateful for his opportunities in life.
“I really am living the American dream,” he said.
Nearly 30 years ago, a young Cisco walked into NHPD headquarters to request a background check for a security job for which he was applying. An NHPD recruiting drive was just wrapping up, and Ortiz was persuaded into signing up by an officer.
The rest is history.
Even after a brief stint in retirement roughly 12 years ago, Ortiz returned to the department because he “desperately missed it,” he said Thursday.
Ortiz was promoted from the rank of captain to assistant chief in March of 2003. After just two months, and to the delight of members of the community who had gotten to know Ortiz over his 24 years with the department, he succeeded Melvin Wearing as the NHPD’s chief.
Ortiz, Connecticut’s fist Latino police chief, took the helm of the department at a time when crime was at less than half its 1990 levels. Following a minor spike in crime in 2004 and 2005, Ortiz continued to preside over lowering crime rates in 2007, when Part I crimes — murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor-vehicle theft — hit a 20-year low.
At the same time, the latter years of his term as chief have also been marked by sharp increases in non-fatal shootings and youth-involved crime.
In early 2005, after a spate of police shootings in the city, Local 530, the New Haven police union, called for a no-confidence vote. Officers complained that Ortiz was being overly sympathetic to city residents by failing to acknowledge the difficulty of making high-pressure decisions in the line of duty.
The union called for the no-confidence vote after one officer, in particular, was suspended for using his gun in a situation that Ortiz deemed inappropriate.
The measure passed by a 221-37 margin, but since then, even Sgt. Louis Cavaliere Sr., the union president, has warmed up to Ortiz.
“We did bump heads in the past,” Cavaliere told the News in December. “But I would have liked to see Cisco stay on longer. We built a relationship with him. We didn’t get what we needed from him all the time, but he’s a good cop.”
The woes continued for the NHPD in October 2006 with the accidental death of Officer Daniel Picagli, who was struck by a car while directing traffic and died in the hospital four days later.
Just three months after Picagli’s passing, in January 2007, Officer Robert Fumiatti died of a heart attack. Five years earlier, Fumiatti had been shot in the line of duty during a drug raid.
Ortiz said some of the most trying times he experienced as chief were those immediately following the deaths of fellow officers. He said he thinks that many people, especially those in the media, often forget the sacrifices every-day people make to be police officers.
“It was devastating,” Ortiz said Thursday. “These guys died protecting the city and engaging in public service. To assume that these people get paid to die, it would be a disservice to their lives.”
Perhaps the most trying test of Ortiz’s abilities came early last year. Tension in the Elm City came to a head in March of 2007, when an FBI probe into the department revealed corruption in the NHPD’s narcotics-enforcement unit, sparking outrage among some members of the community. In all, three officers have been implicated.
The department quickly disbanded the unit, and City Hall hired an independent consultant, the Police Executive Research Forum, to study the NHPD and suggest avenues for reform. Since the final report of suggestions came out last November, the NHPD has stalled on making several crucial changes so that Ortiz’s successor will have a greater hand in seeing through the overhaul.
Ortiz is involved with several New Haven civic groups and is also a senior fellow for the Yale Child Study Center’s Child Development/Community Policing Program.
“Police chiefs have one obligation, and ours is clearly is about relationships,” Ortiz said.
Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 said Thursday that it would be about another month before the next chief is appointed. Although he would not comment on how many candidates out of the initial pool of about 30 still remained, Smuts told the News two weeks ago that the selection committee had a “narrower range” of candidates in mind.
When asked whether he had any advice for the incoming chief, Ortiz’s response was clear: engage the people of New Haven.
“He or she will have to work night and day and have to be highly visible, accessible and responsive to the needs of the community,” he said. “He or she is walking into a great team — a city that embraces its department, and a department that realizes it’s accountable to the community.”
Current Assistant Chief Stephanie Redding — who did not apply for the chief’s job herself — will serve as chief in the interim until Mayor John DeStefano Jr. appoints Ortiz’s successor. No officers within the department applied for the chief’s job.