Interim Police Chief Otoniel Reyes moved one step closer to officially assuming the helm of the New Haven Police Department after his nomination advanced past Monday’s committee hearing.
Reyes, who has served as acting police chief since the retirement of Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’05 in March, faced the Board of Alders’ Aldermanic Affairs committee on Monday. The committee lobbed questions at him about his vision for the Department as it navigates a rapidly changing landscape surrounding policing in New Haven and nationwide. Crime in New Haven has been on a steady decline in recent decades, but police officers nationwide currently face scrutiny for acts of police violence or brutality. If chosen for the permanent position, Reyes will be responsible for combating the department’s long-standing challenges of poor retention and short-staffing, which have caused the City considerable turmoil — financial and otherwise — for years.
“The last five months have been quite a rollercoaster,” Reyes told the Alders Monday. “My goal is to galvanize the department … an opportunity to be the chief and lead this community where I was born and raised is too important to pass up.”
The Elm City has struggled in recent years with retention in its police department. The City has been unable to keep its staff roster full, as officers — after time and resource intensive training programs — are often poached with more attractive offers from the Yale Police Department or departments from New Haven’s surrounding suburbs.
The staffing shortage has had serious implications for the Department and the cash-strapped City. Departures require increased overtime pay; fire and police overtime costs have been one of New Haven’s biggest financial pain points. For years, overtime has required mid-year budget adjustments through line-item transfers, in which specific money allocated to other items is redirected.
Harp’s Chief Administrative Officer Sean Matteson faced the most scrutiny during his own nomination hearing over the question of reining in overtime spending in the city’s police and fire departments — his first nomination was rejected by the Board because of his lack of a concrete plan to do so.
Understaffing and retention came through as a priority in Reyes’ answers to the city legislators. When asked exactly how he would address the staffing issue, he pointed to the current mode of recruitment. The City is often understaffed because it waits until positions are open in order to recruit new officers and put them through the police academy. The lag time effectively guarantees that the department is constantly shorthanded. Reyes said that the department, “need[s] to change the way we recruit … [to] ongoing recruitment.”
Reyes also emphasized the importance of acknowledging and adapting to changes in policing.
Ward 13 Alder Rose Santana pressed Reyes on the topic of walking beats, which Santana said resulted in officers knowing kids and families and that there was “no sense of community when the police officers don’t come through the community.”
Reyes told Alders that it was time to redefine what community policing looks and feels like, and emphasized his belief in the importance of strengthening the commitment between the community and the police force.
He also identified the challenges faced by police departments nationwide, striking balances between militarization and feeling connected to the community. Reyes, a native of New Haven who rose through the ranks, has spent two decades with the police force in various capacities. He served in several detective positions and as assistant chief of operations. He received praise from several of the alders, who hoped that he will become a positive role model for children from the Elm City’s most disadvantaged backgrounds and neighborhoods.
Alder Dave Reyes told Reyes that he gave “hope to our community,” citing Reyes’s roots in the traditionally low-income neighborhood of the Hill.
The hearing ended with the committee moving Reyes’s nomination to the full Board of Alders. If approved, his term would run through January 2022.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org