After a national search, Yale found its next police chief closer to home.

Current Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins was tapped to head the Yale Police Department on Wednesday. Higgins, who has been the department’s assistant chief since 2008, will be sworn in on Feb. 4, University President Richard Levin announced in an e-mail to the Yale community Thursday afternoon.

“I am humbled,” Higgins said in an interview with the News. “It is an absolute honor to lead such a great group of men and women at the Yale Police Department.”

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The search began in early November and Higgins was selected from nearly 100 candidates.

The search’s conclusion was a familiar one for the YPD.

The department’s last national search for chief in 1998 also led to the internal promotion of the YPD’s then-assistant chief, James Perrotti. That search took eight months. Higgins was chosen less than three months after the first advertisement for the position. But even though history indicated Higgins was a front-runner for the position, Yale public safety officials said his selection was not guaranteed.

Current YPD Interim Head of Public Safety James Lewis said the selection committee, which included Lewis, Deputy Secretary for the University Martha Highsmith and Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner, took a long look at every candidate. But Lewis said he was in favor of one candidate from the beginning.

“[Higgins] was an easy choice for me,” he said.

Still, until last night when he received the official call notifying him of his promotion, Higgins said he was less sure of his prospects.

The search for a new YPD chief began with 96 applications from university, municipal and federal departments, and was narrowed down to five finalists in January, Lindner said. Higgins was one of two internal candidates considered finalists, she added. His role as a New Haven citizen may have given Higgins the edge in competition for the role of chief.

“Higgins understands the unique needs and challenges of the Yale community and policing in New Haven,” Lindner said. “But in my mind, Higgins would have been the choice even if he was an external candidate.”

Although there were two internal candidates for the position, Lindner said that there was no politicking on the part of the finalists or the other officers in the department.

Lindner said that the lack of explicit public competition demonstrated the professionalism of the department, and Higgins agreed.

“I’m competing for [the job of Chief] that but I’m not campaigning,” Higgins said to a group of Silliman College students on Monday. “I’m not a politician.”

Higgins visited Silliman as part of a YPD college tour designed to familiarize students with the department. Lindner said it was the desire for community-based initiatives such as the college meet-and-greet that she found particularly appealing about Higgins. She added that his status as a long-term resident of New Haven and knowledge of the unique challenges facing the city helped separate Higgins from his competitors.

Lewis said he is impressed with Higgins’s understanding of the areas around the University. He cited the programs that Higgins helped to develop that reach out to the youth in communities adjacent to Yale as evidence that he appreciates the nuances of his environment.

“[Higgins] is a very imposing guy; he looks like he could be in the NFL,” Lewis said. “But he relates really well to people.”

Lewis, the former New Haven Chief who took over as part-time YPD head when former chief James A. Perrotti retired in June 2010, has taken Higgins under his wing since he began his tenure at the University.

Lewis said he and Higgins regularly talked about the state of policing in the city and across the country, and that Higgins has been a “sponge” in taking in and using information about how to help the community he serves.

“He has tremendous potential to grow,” Lewis said.

Although tutelage under the head of the department may have seemed like an internal endorsement for Higgins, Lindner said Lewis was discreet during the search for his replacement.

“Chief Lewis is a low-key individual,” she said. “If he was mentoring me, I wouldn’t even know it.”

Lewis said he hopes his relationship with Higgins will continue indefinitely.

Yale has hired Lewis to stay on campus for several months and help develop a departmental plan for the next three to five years, But even after Lewis leaves, he will continue mentoring Higgins for as long as he is needed, he said. Lewis added that he plans to act as a sounding board whenever the new YPD chief wants to talk.

“It was important in my career to have people to call that I trusted,” Lewis said. “Hopefully for the rest of his career [Higgins] will call me.”

Lewis said when he took the YPD position that he plans to spend his retirement in Wisconsin with his children and his grandchildren.