Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

As the city’s search for a new permanent police chief drags on, New Haven’s Acting Chief Renee Dominguez has been slapped with a lawsuit alleging she’s occupying the role illegally.

The suit, filed by First Calvary Baptist Church Rev. Boise Kimber and Way of the Cross Pastor Donarell Elder, hinges on differing interpretations of a portion of the City Charter that dictates how long someone can hold the chief position in an acting role. The Charter states that the mayor cannot pick someone to hold an acting position for more than six months “without being submitted for confirmation by the Board of Alders.” In early December, alders rejected Dominguez after Mayor Justin Elicker submitted her name for the role of permanent chief. Elicker argues that the Charter doesn’t require her name to actually be approved, only submitted to the Board of Alders. So now the question hangs: according to the City Charter, was it sufficient for Elicker to simply submit the name, or must the Board of Alders actually approve the name? 

“We’re saying give us a legal opinion that will tell us who is right and if the mayor is right then the Board of Alders needs to look back at the charter again,” Kimber told the News. “If the mayor is wrong then that means the charter has spoken for itself.”

Kimber and Elder filed the lawsuit in early January and are being represented by New Haven lawyer Jerald Barber. They are scheduled to appear in Connecticut State Superior Court over Zoom on March 4. 

“It’s important to keep the PD stable while the search is conducted and also to allow for a smooth transition between myself and the next Chief,” Dominguez wrote in an email to the News on Wednesday afternoon.

Elicker said Dominguez should remain Assistant Chief as the search for a permanent chief continues. 

“We’ve begun the search process and hope to make an announcement about an executive search firm shortly,” Elicker wrote in an email to the News before the Request for Proposal was issued. “In the meantime, Chief Dominguez will continue to lead the department. I’m charged with the responsibility of protecting the public safety of this community, and that is what I’m doing with this decision. Dr. Kimber seems to be more interested in press conferences and attention than the best interests of the city. His lawsuit is a nuisance, costs the city time and money and does nothing to make our community safer.”

The News reached out to City Spokesperson Kyle Buda for the mayor’s further comments. On Jan. 25, Buda responded that the city will not comment on matters that are part of on-going litigation.

According to Corporation Counsel Patricia King, the City’s position is that the suit’s claim “is based on an incorrect and incomplete reading of the Charter and ordinances.”

“As has been said in the past, the City will vigorously defend the Acting Chief’s right to remain in the position until her successor has been chosen and duly qualified, as provided in the City Charter,” King said.

Dominguez has been with the New Haven Police Department since 2002 and has served as acting chief since March. Throughout her time in the position, Kimber has publicly called on Dominguez and the mayor to boost diversity in the top ranks of the Department. 

Since 1993, either the police chief or assistant chief for the NHPD have been Black. Both Dominguez and Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson are white. When she was initially nominated for permanent chief in November, Kimber held a press conference to request Dominguez and Elicker commit to appointing a Black assistant chief.

“The mayor could not commit to it neither could she commit to it,” said Kimber. “So how do you not commit to an assistant Black chief when this community is made up of Black and brown people?”

In her response, Dominguez told the News she has discussed her agreement that a diverse command staff and department were a priority for her. 

In December, some alders echoed Kimber’s concerns over department diversity and Dominguez’s plans to reduce crime. 

Following Dominguez’s rejection, the Board of Alders leadership said in a statement, “When we are confident that there is a real strategic plan that includes the recruitment of diverse employees training and advancement of officers to all levels in the department, action on improving closure rates, successful efforts toward decreasing homicides, and tackling the violence afflicting our city, then and only then can we move forward together.”

After being rejected by the Board of Alders, Dominiguez withdrew her name from police chief consideration and announced her intention to retire from the force.

The mayor then decided to keep Dominguez in place as acting chief as he launches a nationwide search for a new permanent chief. 

“So now the mayor had an opportunity to bring her name back to the Board of Alders, he failed to do that and he’s standing on the fact that he feels as though his interpretation of the law and of the charter is right and he’s standing in his rightful place,” Kimber said. 

Kimber also argued that the mayor is dragging his heels in the hunt for a replacement.  

“The mayor insists that he’s going to keep her until he finds a new chief,” Kimber commented. “And he’s not working on finding a new chief.’”

Elder, the second plaintiff, told the News he thinks it is important for the city to make the transition “as soon as possible.” 

“The group, the clergy that brought forth this lawsuit are just trying to say, hey, look, you can’t just do it any old way,” Elder said. “There are too many pieces, too many people, too many concerns within the city for us just to sit by and let you break the rule of law.”

Elder said the lawsuit is aimed at ensuring transparency in the selection process and addressing differing interpretations of the city charter but is not specifically commenting on Dominguez’s ability to serve as chief. 

Kimber said he thinks there is a “silent majority out there” supporting him in the lawsuit. “I don’t think that it is pushing the issue,” he said. “I think that there needs to be a ruling and interpretation on the charter besides the mayor’s interpretation. So, let’s get a legal interpretation. Don’t tell me that I gotta believe what the mayor is saying only because he said it.”

The city released a Request for Proposal through for Police Chief, or RFP, on Jan. 16 to look for an interested and qualified professional consultant to identify, recruit and recommend qualified and viable candidates for Chief of Police. Chief Administrative Officer Regina Rush-Kittle was appointed by the mayor to lead the search process.

“I’m looking forward to identifying a well-qualified firm who can assist the city in finding a strong leader for our department,”  Elicker said in the press release on January 24. “The selection of a permanent police chief is critical to our city’s future. Once a firm is in place, we will gather input from the public and key stakeholders about the qualities they feel are most important in an individual filling this role — and we will incorporate that feedback into the selection process.”

The city is looking for a company which has worked with cities of comparable size and culturally diverse communities similar to the City of New Haven, according to Rush-Kittle.

While the search for police chief is national, NHPD Captain David Zannelli told the News that he personally “always likes to see somebody from inside the police department become the chief.”

“I have to be honest, I’m partial. I do think we have folks here that can qualify just as much as anybody from the outside.” Zannell said, “but I do understand why the mayor is doing [a national search], because you have a piece of the community that is asking for an outside search… I’m not against that, either. But I just hope it’d be [someone] that shares the same model of community policing that we’ve come accustomed to.”

In response to why it took the city 41 days to issue RFP after Dominguez’s appointment was vetoed, Rush-Kittle wrote to the News that before issuing the RFP the city went through a planning phase which included input from stakeholders with experience hiring chiefs of police and discussions to identify keys to a successful search. 

Dominguez said that though an outside company will be hired to run the selection process, she would offer input if requested. She said it’s hard to know what exactly the transition process will look like once a new Chief is selected, but that she is “confident” she will be able to provide information and documents to the next chief for a smooth transition. 

As for pulling from within the NHPD for the next chief versus bringing in an outsider, Dominguez said there are “many capable, competent, amazing leaders” in the department. “I would love for one of them to be named my successor as they understand the needs of the community, the needs of the officers, and have been involved in reorganizing and refreshing the NHPD over the past few years.”

24 members of the Board of Alders could not be reached for comments by the time of publication.

The RFP submission closes on Feb 1.

Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.