James Post

The New Haven Police Department swore in Patricia Helliger as its first Black female captain Friday.

The historic promotion ceremony, held at City Hall before an impressive crowd of over 100, included testimonials about Helliger from community members and city officials including Mayor Toni Harp and NHPD Chief Dean Esserman. Helliger has moved up the ranks in the NHPD for 20 years and was promoted to captain after passing a civil service test. As a police captain, she will direct the day-to-day patrols and deployment of one of the department’s police units. During the ceremony, Helliger said she hopes her promotion will encourage women of color seeking advancement within the department.

“I react with joy, but also with a sense of awkwardness that it would take until now for this appointment to happen,” Helliger said. “By being the first, it’s lonely. However, by being the first, I am encouraged that this gender and color line — broken today — will pave the way for more women who look like me.”

Esserman said Helliger is an excellent addition to the “long line” of women in leadership at the NHPD, including assistant chiefs Stephanie Redding and Denise Blanchard and captains Joann Peterson and Julie Johnson. He praised Helliger’s involvement in the local community, which includes raising money and food for local families and running toy drives, often in collaboration with the clergy.

At the ceremony, Harp emphasized the importance of creating a police force as diverse as New Haven, adding that Helliger’s promotion is a step in the right direction.

“I think today’s promotion ceremony gives us all here and everyone in New Haven an extra measure of pride,” said Harp, who was sworn in as New Haven’s first African-American female mayor in 2014  . “We are especially proud of having the police department reflect the community it serves: men and women who are racially and culturally diverse, who respect and embrace that diversity for the strength it implies.”

The NHPD is the most diverse police department in Connecticut, Esserman said. While the number of minority members of the NHPD is 20.7 percent fewer than the percentage of minorities in the city, the ratio of minorities in the police departments of Hartford, Stamford, Waterbury and Bridgeport is over 35 percent fewer than the percentage of minorities in those cities.

Dwight/West River Alder Tyisha Walker said having a high-ranking Black woman within the NHPD will inspire the children of the community. She said Helliger’s promotion serves as an example for young people within the Elm City.

“Seeing you achieve this accomplishment, now I can go back to all the young people and say ‘This is attainable,’” Walker said. “We have proof, right here in our city.”

Esserman also emphasized the value of a strong relationship between a police force and the public. He noted that the NHPD has strived to practice community policing — a philosophy of law enforcement that involves actively building partnerships between a local community and its police. Through community policing, officers are assigned a beat within neighborhoods around the city and are encouraged to walk through the area and build relationships with residents.

Esserman added that though the NHPD has made significant strides in establishing a relationship with the community, they still have “miles to go.”

“I think what is most important about this ceremony is that the community is here,” Esserman said. “It is the community that is here to celebrate a community police force.”

Though Helliger said she felt the promotion validated her work within the city, she acknowledged that her new position would “not be easy.”

William Dyson, a former Connecticut State Rep., urged the community to continue to assist Helliger in her new role.

“She is going to be in the spotlight,” Dyson said. “She is going to need all the support she can get.”

The first Black police officer in the U.S. was hired in 1867 in Selma, Alabama.