New Haven Police Chief search continues as Dominguez departs
Former NHPD Acting Chief Renee Dominguez, who was appointed to serve as the first permanent female chief for the department, faced rejection for the role and spent months tangled in a legal battle over remaining as acting chief.
May 13 was the last day of work at the New Haven Police Department for now former Acting Chief Renee Dominguez.
Dominguez decided to leave after Connecticut Superior Court Judge Michael Kamp ruled that she was occupying the role illegally and ordered her to vacate the role. New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker initially planned to appeal the decision but later appointed City Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Regina Rush-Kittle as acting chief of NHPD in Dominguez’s place. The city has now narrowed down its pick for permanent chief as Elicker announced Monday he will nominate NHPD Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson before the Board of Alders June 6.
In her over 22-year-long career in law enforcement, Dominguez served two decades with the NHPD. In New Haven, Dominguez soared through the ranks and served in a variety of capacities as a patrol officer, K-9 handler, hostage crisis negotiator, patrol sergeant and district manager of the Westville, Fair Haven and Newhallville neighborhoods. Before ascending to the position of acting chief, Dominguez had been serving as assistant chief of patrol operations under former NHPD Chief Ontoneil Reyes.
Elicker appointed Domingez as acting chief when Reyes retired from the force to take over as head of security at Quinnipiac University in March 2021. In her time as acting chief, Dominguez oversaw the seizure of hundreds of guns tied to shooting and domestic violence-related arrests and directed recruitment for new officers across the city.
The mayor appointed Dominguez to serve as permanent chief of the department in November 2021. He lauded Dominguez’s “passion and determination” in her role as acting chief as she guided the NHPD through losing an officer on the force, navigating a nationwide spike in violent crime and boosting measures to hold officers accountable for misconduct.
In her nomination, Dominguez and Elicker both noted the historic significance of such an appointment. Dominguez would have been not only the first permanent female police chief in New Haven but also the first of any “major city” in the state.
“[This appointment] says that the chief has worked hard in a career that has traditionally been dominated by men,” Elicker said. “She has risen through the ranks, earned the respect of her colleagues and community members all while managing the responsibilities of being a mother.”
But, a month after her appointment, the city’s Board of Alders voted to reject Dominguez for permanent chief through Jan. 31, 2022. The Board of Alders wrote in a statement after their “resounding nay” that Dominguez lacked a “thorough, detailed and nuanced plan for the future of the department that was acceptable to the community and engendered trust.” Alders said they were hoping to see Dominguez present a “real strategic plan” to recruit diverse officers, train and advance officers in all levels of the department and reduce homicides and violence.
Activists from Unidad Latina en Acción and Black and Brown United in Action protested against Dominguez’s nomination at the Board of Alders meeting, claiming that Dominguez was a “racist cop.” Dominguez faced scrutiny for not developing a concrete plan to address a lack of diversity in the department’s top ranks and for imposing unequal punishments for Black and white officers.
In April 2021, Dominguez defended cops displaying the “Thin Blue Line” flag, even displaying one on her office wall during a Jan. 7 public virtual Compstat meeting, arguing that it represented solidarity among law enforcement officers.
In response to the Board of Alders rejection, Elicker released a statement calling the vote “disappointing” and “disheartening.”
“Under [Dominguez’s] leadership we’re in the process of rebuilding the ranks of our department and she has prioritized that the department looks like the community it protects,” Elicker wrote. “For many months she has been implementing our comprehensive plan to combat gun violence.”
Elicker promised to resubmit Dominguez’s name at the following bimonthly Board of Alders meeting later in December 2021. This submission would have been for Dominguez to serve as acting chief for the upcoming term that was set to begin Feb. 1, 2022.
One week after her rejection, however, Domiguez announced her retirement and withdrew her name from consideration for the role of permanent chief. Instead, she pledged to serve as acting chief until the city could find a new permanent chief.
Elicker expressed concern over beginning the process to find a new chief. “The way that this confirmation process has gone … it will be more difficult to attract candidates because politics is a difficult thing in New Haven,” he said.
In January of this year, First Calvary Baptist Church Rev. Boise Kimber and Donarell Elder, pastor at Way of the Cross, filed a lawsuit alleging Dominguez was occupying the role of acting chief illegally.
The lawsuit pointed to the city’s charter, which 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 her defense, Dominguez wrote in an email to the News, “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.”
“Dr. Kimber seems to be more interested in press conferences and attention than the best interests of the city,” Elicker said in an email to the News responding to the lawsuit. “His lawsuit is a nuisance, costs the city time and money and does nothing to make our community safer.”
After months of no movement on the lawsuit, in May, a Connecticut Superior Court judge sided with Kimber and Elder’s interpretation of the city charter and ordered Dominguez to leave her post.
In a memorandum of decision accompanying his order filed in the Connecticut Superior Court, Judge Kamp called the mayor’s position on the issue “illogical” and in contradiction with the “express and implied” language of the charter.
Kamp explained that according to the city charter, the mayor could not keep Dominguez in the role of acting chief beyond six months. Otherwise, Kamp argued, any mayor could keep someone in an acting role indefinitely.
In a press conference addressing Kamp’s ruling, Elicker vowed to appeal the court’s decision.
Pat King, counselor for City Corporation, said at that conference that the city stood on firm legal grounds and that the city was looking only to maintain “stability and efficiency” in city government.
“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.
Members of the Board of Alders including President Tysha Walker-Myers and Ward 1 Alder Alex Guzhnay ’24 called on the Mayor to abide by the judge’s decision.
Rather than fight to appeal the decision, Dominguez announced she would step down from acting chief. In her announcement, she said that a wave of “negative” media attention nudged her to take the official, final step away from the NHPD.
In her place, Elicker tapped Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Regina Rush-Kittle to fill in as acting chief until the city lands on a new permanent chief.
Elicker appointed Rush-Kittle to the role of CAO — a position that oversees the police, fire and public works departments for City Hall — in November alongside his endorsement of Dominguez for permanent chief. Rush-Kittle was confirmed for the role in a vote by the full Board of Alders in December.
Rush-Kittle started her career in law enforcement with the Connecticut Department of Correction and later served in the Connecticut State Police for almost 30 years. Prior to joining as New Haven’s CAO, Rush-Kittle served as deputy commissioner of the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
Elicker appointed Rush-Kittle to steer the nationwide search process for the permanent NHPD chief.
In mid-February, the mayor selected the only consulting firm to respond to a request for proposal for police chief, or RFP. The city posted the RFP in January to hire a professional consultant to identify, recruit and recommend qualified candidates for police chief.
Members of the city-hired search consultant firm Ralph Andersen & Associates spoke with representatives on the Board of Alders, Board of Police Commissioners, Yale Police Department and several other “key stakeholders” for input. They have also been working to assess results from surveys and two community meetings for New Haven residents to provide input throughout the hiring process.
Applications for NHPD chief were due on May 8. According to the New Haven Independent, Elicker said the city received fifteen applications for the position. Of those applicants, the city landed on Jacobson who has served with the NHPD for fifteen years and as an assistant chief since 2019.
The NHPD headquarters are located at 1 Union Ave.