As James Lewis’s 20-month tenure as police chief ends today, his departure to his home in Wisconsin ends a period of recovery for the New Haven Police Department, which was plagued with a 2007 corruption scandal that resulted in the arrest of three decorated cops. Although some critics said that the police chief was too aggressive in his policing strategies and not lenient enough with his police officers, city officials are now trying to find a replacement that will continue with his policing strategy.
When Lewis arrived in 2008, he always wanted to be a short-term chief whose main mission was to make his job more attractive to future candidates. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said that Lewis has achieved his goal and that several candidates with strong backgrounds have applied because they know the department is stable and improving. Lewis said what remains for the next chief to do is to continue the department’s record crime reduction — a 10 percent decrease in crime and 1,000 fewer victims of serious crimes (which include murder, assault and theft) from 2008 — and continue to keep the department corruption-free by strengthening internal affairs and training programs.
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But as Lewis leaves, some critics such as Sgt. Louis Cavaliere, president of the police union Local 530, said he has been too much of a stickler to the rules — giving no second chances to his police officers. For instance, Cavaliere said, rookie cop Jason Bandy, just 24, deserved a second chance after Lewis had him fired for falsely calling in sick, getting drunk and causing a rowdy disturbance in a downtown bar in October.
And Lewis has been criticized for his views on community policing. Community activists, such as former Ward 10 Alderman Allan Brison, have said Lewis’s aggressive tactics harasses innocent citizens and needlessly builds neighborhood animosity toward police.
“Lewis’s tactics have ushered in a new mistrust of the police among New Haven youth which did not exist 10 years ago,” Brison said in an interview two weeks ago.
Still, in an interview with the News on Monday, Lewis pointed to the implementation of “aggressive community policing” (which seeks to eliminate sources of major crime in high-risk neighborhoods) and the revival of the narcotics unit (which was dissolved in the wake of the corruption scandal) as among his concrete successes during his tenure. But the main one, he said, is harder to measure.
“The officers just feel better about themselves,” Lewis said. “They are taking more pride in what they do.”
OUT OF RETIREMENT
When he joined in summer 2008, Lewis acted swiftly to conduct prostitution stings and nearly double the number of traffic stops and searches by police. Arrests increased because of his new tactics, though 2008 still ended with 23 homicides, 10 more than the previous year. But he did not back down from his policies and actually stepped up the number of traffic stops and drug raids. Slowly, things began to turn around.
Lewis said that as crime dropped, police morale improved, leading to cops doing better jobs. That year crime dropped 10 percent to its lowest level in 20 years.
“Officers would come to me and say, ‘We used to be the best police in Connecticut, and we’re not anymore,’ ” Lewis said. “Eventually, they started saying ‘We’re on our way back.’”
But Lewis never planned on coming to New Haven — or continuing with police work. In fact, he had retired five times from police departments across the nation before he took the New Haven job.
“This retirement thing just hasn’t worked,” Lewis said.
A former police chief in California and Wisconsin, Lewis was filling in as interim police chief in Grand Chutes, Wisc., when he was contacted by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2008 about another fill-in top cop job. Officials provided Lewis with a report on the NHPD, and he saw numerous problems.
The former chief, Francisco Ortiz, left before his term was over to take a security job at Yale. The leader of the narcotics unit and two of its detectives had been convicted in federal court on corruption charges, and the unit had been disbanded by DeStefano. Morale was low, and crime was high. The city was having difficulty finding a new chief.
“It was certainly a daunting task,” Lewis said.
KEEPING TO STANDARDS
Yet New Haven was not the biggest challenge in his career: Lewis once had tried to police the Palestinian West Bank.
In 2000, Lewis and other American law enforcement officials were brought to Nablus, the biggest Palestinian city, to help train the security forces of Fatah. Lewis worked to create bonds between the Palestinian cops and their Israeli counterparts.
Lewis’s efforts led to cooperation between the two forces, but a new wave of terrorism, known as the Second Intifada, began, wrecking the fragile ties Lewis had started to build. Lewis said his experience in Palestine showed him how important policing can be: Cops can create cohesive communities.
It is a lesson Lewis said he has tried to apply to New Haven and other cities he has policed. Under his command, Green Bay police won the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing in 1999.
But in the Elm City, Brison and Lewis’s other critics said the chief’s approach to community policing is his biggest flaw. They pointed to the tenure of Nicholas Pastore, the police chief in the 1990s who set up foot patrols and after-school programs, leading to a 33 percent drop in crime over his seven years. Lewis responded that Brison and others do not understand community policing, noting that even the lowest crime levels under Pastore were significantly higher than crime levels now.
Cavaliere said Lewis has not been lenient enough toward his own officers. Although Cavaliere said the chief, on most issues with the union, has been one of the most cooperative chiefs he has dealt with, Lewis should be more supportive toward his police officers when they err.
But Lewis said police have “certain standards that we have to be accountable to.”
“I’m not really making the decision,” Lewis said. “They made it by violating those standards.”
Late last month, Lewis kept to his strict standards by suspending Assistant Chief Peter Reichard — the sole internal candidate to be the next police chief — for misconduct toward civilians and fellow officers, even though Lewis had personally appointed Reichard.
Lewis’s tough approach on policing has left its mark on his police officers — and even on the Yale police. Yale Police Chief James Perrotti said in an interview last week that Lewis had shared useful police tactics with his force.
“You get to an age when you think you’ve seen it all, but I learned a lot from Chief Lewis,” Perrotti said.
Assistant Chief Stephanie Redding said in an interview last week that she would not change any of Lewis’s policies during her tenure as acting chief. And the new chief will likely not change course, either; Lewis is one of the three city officials who are interviewing all candidates before DeStefano decides the new chief from their list of finalists.
Although the finalists have been chosen, Lewis, DeStefano and other city officials have declined to release their names.
Now, Lewis is all ready to leave. His flight is booked. On Saturday, he flies back to Wisconsin with his wife, Kris.
Though Lewis has worked all over the country, he calls Wisconsin his home. In the city of Appleton, where he also used to be police chief, his son is a cop and his daughter is a teacher. Lewis will be returning to his house in Black Creek Village, a small town outside of Appleton.
As for what he will do now, Lewis’ main job will be grandpa. His second grand kid was recently born, and he said he wants to retire for good to help take care of the grandkids. Lewis said that he has already received several police consulting offers and that he may take them because he has “never had a good hobby.”
“I always tell officers to find balance, find hobbies outside police work,” Lewis said. “Well, I never did. I guess my whole life, I’ve been paid to do my hobby.”