In the spring of 2007, the New Haven Police Department suffered a grave blow to its reputation. Two of its officers were arrested, including the head of the department’s narcotics unit, Lt. William “Billy” White. Two more would later be implicated in a corruption sting that exposed those officers as dishonest and undeserving of the public trust. The narcotics unit was disbanded, the department scrutinized.
Two and a half years later, the NHPD garnered national attention again. When 24-year-old Yale doctoral student Annie Le’s GRD ’13 death was ruled a homicide, the department took the reins of a high-profile investigation. Less than four days after Le’s body was found, the department had arrested a suspect, and it had done so on national television.
Moreover, the VICE/Narcotics Unit — which replaced the defunct narcotics unit in February 2009 — played an integral role in the case, conducting crucial surveillance of the suspect in question.
It may appear to be a story of redemption. After more than two years of restructuring its operations, the NHPD has made large strides in trying to avoid its past missteps. Still, questions continue to linger about the competency of law enforcement agencies involved in the case — the direct result of information leaks reported in the media, which could have obstructed the investigation. City officials and police representatives, for their part, said the department has been rebuilding itself gradually for the last two years, denying the notion that the Le case was a cure-all for the NHPD’s image.
“Unfortunately, those individuals painted a negative picture of whole department,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said. “But I don’t think it’s just the Annie Le case that demonstrated that we’re a strong department.”
THE DARK DAYS
On March 18, 2007 — five days after the FBI raid of NHPD — the New Haven Register ran this headline: “Police scandal shakes public faith.”
“It feels very terrible to me that somebody in that kind of position of responsibility could do something so —” Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison said at the time, referring to White. “I’m really very sad for the city.”
That day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation locked down NHPD headquarters and arrested two officers, including White. In a targeted sting operation, the FBI planted $27,500 in a car with hidden cameras and microphones. When one of White’s undercover informants tipped him off to the cash, White went to the car and took $5,000. Later in the day, he returned and took the rest of the money. On two other occasions, the FBI observed White stealing money while executing search or arrest warrants.
White, who was charged and later pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and theft of government property, is currently serving 38 months in jail. Kasperzyk and Silva received jail sentences of 15 months and 90 days, respectively, in early 2008.
“Today is a very dark day for our police department,” then-Chief Francisco Ortiz (who is now the director of security for Yale’s West Campus) said the day White was arrested. “I’m disgusted. I’m upset. I’m frustrated.”
To help restore the public’s confidence the city commissioned a team of experts with the Police Executive Research Forum for $130,000 to conduct a six-month review of the NHPD. In November 2007, PERF’s 127-page report was released with nearly 100 recommendations.
“It will be imperative for the New Haven Police Department to implement many of the changes presented in this report in order to regain the public trust that has been impaired,” the report said. “Without that trust, it will be difficult to succeed in preventing crime, violence and disorder.”
More than 90 percent of the report’s recommendations have been implemented — recommendations that NHPD Chief James Lewis said likely contributed to the quick resolution of the Le murder. Organizational and procedural revisions, which strengthened the department’s operation of its property and evidence rooms, as well as its cooperation with federal and state agencies, contributed to the expediency with which the NHPD was able to make an arrest, Lewis said.
In the first six months of 2009, total violent and nonviolent crime was down 10 percent compared with that time in 2008; the summer of 2009 had been the first homicide-free summer in 20 years; and in 2008, Yale University experienced the lowest crime rate in any year since 2000.
City officials, such as Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, cited this and other factors as proof that the NHPD has recovered from its corruption scandal. But they also agreed, at least in part, that the Le case has solidified the NHPD’s public standing as a well-functioning law enforcement organization.
“I don’t believe any single arrest can overcome the damage done by a corruption scandal,” NHPD Chief James Lewis said Tuesday. “The totality of our work is what will repair the damage.”
But City Hall spokeswoman Mayorga stressed that the recognition has been a long time coming. Critics of the NHPD were unfair to use the narcotics unit scandal in 2007 as a reflection of the overall quality of the department at that time, she said.
“I think the question is: At what point should all the other members of the department have had to pay for the poor judgments of a few individuals?” Mayorga said. “We’ve had a strong department all along.”
Chief Public Defender in New Haven Tom Ullmann said that some of the information provided to the press after Le’s body had been found should not have been made public. As he called for an investigation into the source of the leaks, Ullmann said media reports about Le’s suspected murderer could make it hard for jurors to remain impartial in the case.
“I don’t think you can just let it go without expressing that this is a problem, and if it continues and if we discover who it is, there are going to be consequences,” Ullmann said. “Otherwise I don’t think it will stop.”
Yale administrators, too, were troubled by the leaks.
“I frankly found the unattributed sources in some of the regional and national press to be disconcerting, and I think problematic, for people both in our community and the nation trying to follow the story,” University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said.
Ullmann said he believed the leaks originated from officers in the NHPD, citing a report in the New Haven Register that referred to anonymous sources at the department.
Asked about the leaks in a recent interview, Lewis said he was unsure of how reporters got their information. Because a lot of what was leaked was inaccurate, he said, it was impossible to know whether reporters spoke to police, people who had been interviewed by the police, or simply people who pretended to know what they were talking about.
NHPD spokesman Joe Avery said that it is hard to pinpoint where the leaks were coming from since there were five agencies involved. The NHPD, Yale Police Department, Connecticut State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State’s Attorney’s Office all had roles in the investigation into Le’s murder.
“I can’t say it wasn’t us, I can’t guarantee it wasn’t us,” Lewis said. “Part of the issue of when you have close relationships in a community where we’re working side by side with each other, friendships are built. Could that possibly play into this? Sure, it’s a possibility.”
Still, many commended the department’s handling of the case — regardless of the leaked information. Remarked Rhodeen, who chairs the aldermanic Public Safety committee: “The NHPD has certainly come a long way since the dark days when Billy White was arrested.”
Correction: October 6, 2009
The previous version of this article misidentified Ed Mattison, who was the alderman for Ward 10, not Ward 11.