Natalie Kainz, Multimedia Managing Editor

Faced with differing interpretations of New Haven’s foundational document, the city remains divided.

On one side of the months-long debate over Renee Dominguez’s position as interim NHPD chief are two influential religious leaders, the city’s legislature and a state judge — all of whom allege that Dominguez is occupying the role illegally. But in ardent defense of Dominguez and the police department is Mayor Justin Elicker, who announced Monday afternoon that he will appeal a Connecticut Superior Court judge’s order for the interim chief to leave her post.

The initial lawsuit was filed in January by First Calvary Baptist Church Rev. Boise Kimber and Way of the Cross pastor Donarell Elder. After the New Haven Board of Alders rejected Dominguez for the role of permanent chief in December, Elicker decided to keep Dominguez as acting chief while the city launched a nationwide search to pick a new chief. In his lawsuit, Kimber claimed that Elicker’s decision was in conflict with the city charter, which states that the Mayor cannot pick someone to hold an acting role for over six months “without being submitted for confirmation by the Board of Alders.” 

“Indeed, if the argument advanced by the defendant’s counsel were adopted by this court, there would be nothing that would prevent this mayor, or any mayor of the city of New Haven, from appointing a temporary police chief, having that nominee rejected by the Board of Alders, then allowing the rejected nominee to serve for the rest of the mayor’s administration,” Judge Michael Kamp wrote in a Memorandum of Decision accompanying his order filed in the Connecticut Superior Court. “Such a position is illogical and it is contrary to the express and implied language of the New Haven charter.”

Boise and Elder’s attorney Jerald Barber declined to provide an immediate comment and plans to hold a press conference on Tuesday. 

“I have been focused and committed to performing my duties as Police Chief since I was named Acting Chief in March 2021,” Dominguez wrote in a statement provided to the News by NHPD Public Information Officer Scott Shumway. “This ruling has no effect on me continuing to successfully perform my job for the officers and the community.”

Judge calls city justification “illogical”

With Dominguez occupying the role for nearly five months, Kamp wrote that the interim chief has been skirting alder approval to hold onto the role “without any definite end in sight.” 

The city charter allows the mayor to appoint someone to fill an acting role in the city. In the memorandum, Kamp explained that such appointment power comes into play if a role is vacant due to death, resignation, inability, disability, or removal. But, Kamp wrote, those powers do not apply in this case, because Dominguez never served as the permanent chief.

The role was officially vacated when former NHPD Chief Ontoniel Reyes retired in January 2021. It was then that Dominguez stepped in to serve as interim acting chief. In December 2021, the Board of Alders voted against her appointment as permanent police chief, citing concerns over the lack of concrete plans and accusations of racism. A few days after this, Dominguez announced her retirement from the NHPD but has continued serving as interim chief with no alternate candidate in sight.  

Mayor: “Politically motivated stunt show” 

“We have kept Chief Dominguez in this position to ensure continuity and stability as we work to identify a new chief of police and strongly believe we have followed the charter in doing so,” Elicker said at Monday’s press conference. 

The city faced heat for allegedly dragging its heels in launching the search for a new chief. In Monday’s presser, Elicker noted that the city has hired an outsider recruiter, posted the job, and conducted community engagement meetings. Elicker said that the city hopes to pick a new chief as quickly as possible, and that he is proud of the process the city has conducted. 

City Corporation Counsel Pat King said at Monday’s presser that because Dominguez has pledged to retire as soon as her successor is found, she would not be in the position indefinitely. Instead, King argued, the city was seeking to maintain “stability and efficiency” in city government. King said she believes the city stands on firm legal grounds, particularly because the mayor is actively looking for a new police chief. 

“In my view, to have a merry-go-round of police chiefs every six months is not necessarily in the best interest of the city,” said King. 

Elicker called the lawsuit “politically motivated” because Kimber “does not like Chief Dominguez being in her position.” He said the lawsuit was a “distraction” and questioned what Kimber hopes to accomplish with the lawsuit. 

“We want a new police chief, we’re working hard to do that,” Elicker said. “So let’s focus on the task at hand and not disrupt things and try to create chaos and instability right now.”

But members of the Board of Alders, who have the power to approve or reject police chief appointments, called on the Mayor to stand by the state judge’s decision.

“Today’s decision in Boise Kimber, et al. v. Renee Dominguez regarding the interpretation of the charter language is clear,” Board of Alders President Tysha Walker-Myers wrote in a statement. “The authority to approve or deny a police chief sits solely with the Board of Alders. The city should respect the decision of the judge and name an interim chief or submit a name for consideration as chief. Again, the City Charter is clear about the powers of city officials and should be followed and respected.”

Ward 1 Alder Alex Guzhnay ’24 echoed Walker-Myers’ statement, saying that he believes the mayor should find another individual to serve as interim chief, then, “once the community process and search process for a police chief concludes, submit whoever’s name that may be for consideration before the Board.” 

NHPD Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson declined to immediately comment but said he will provide comments on Tuesday.

The applications for NHPD Chief close May 8, after which Elicker will then review and submit a candidate to the Board of Alders for a confirmation process. 

Sylvan Lebrun contributed reporting.

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.
Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.