Yale News

Ronnell Higgins, associate vice president for public safety and community engagement and former Yale Chief of Police, has been appointed to succeed James Rovella as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. 

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced Wednesday afternoon at a Hartford press conference that Higgins will become the new state public safety chief immediately once Rovella retires next month. 

Rovella, the former police chief in Hartford, was inaugurated as commissioner in December 2018 and oversees six divisions, including the state police, homeland security and state crime lab as commissioner.

The appointment, which goes into effect next month, will end Higgins’ 27-year tenure at the University. 

In the press conference, Governor Lamont praised Higgins’ near 30-year career in Connecticut law enforcement. 

“[Ronnell Higgins] is respected locally and nationally for his knowledge, service and aptitude,” Lamont said. “His experience makes him more than capable of leading this critical, multi-division state agency. I appreciate his willingness to join state service and I look forward to his leadership in this role.” 

Higgins joined the Yale Police Department in 1997 as an officer and has held several key roles within the department over the following decades, including sergeant, patrol commander and lieutenant. In 2011, he became Yale’s Chief of Police and in 2015 became the director of public safety. Since June 2022, Higgins has served as the associate vice president for public safety and community engagement at Yale, responsible for overseeing more than 180 staff and a $32 million operating budget.

Higgins’ tenure at Yale was not without controversy. In 2019, Higgins was in charge of the department when a YPD officer was involved in the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon — two unarmed Black New Haven residents — by a Hamden police officer. The officers fired over 16 bullets into the vehicle where Washington and Witherspoon were sitting, injuring Washington.

In 2020, students demanded that the University dismantle YPD. While Higgins disagreed with accusations that the YPD did not keep Black and Brown communities safe, he promised to collaborate with the University and the city to address concerns over YPD’s accountability.

Following continued student pressure in 2023, Higgins oversaw the implementation of a new “differential response model” for emergency calls, which he claimed met student concerns. The new model increased YPD’s use of alternate emergency response techniques, aiming to dispatch the most appropriate personnel for emergency calls. For example, while YPD would respond to calls about an autojacking, security or medical personnel would respond to calls about how to support an intoxicated student.

In August of this year, the Yale Police Benevolent Association, amid contract negotiations, came under fire after distributing “fear-mongering” flyers warning first-year students of crime in New Haven. Higgins denounced the flyers at a news conference with other New Haven officials.

“I am truly honored at the opportunity to serve as the next commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection for the State of Connecticut,” Higgins said. “I am looking forward to applying my experiences, as well as listening, learning, and leading this important, six-division agency.”

In a message to the Yale community, Jack Callahan, senior vice president of operations, announced that he is working with Higgns and John Whelan, Yale’s vice president for human resources, to create an interim leadership structure for Public Safety.

Callahan praised Higgins for his longtime service to the University and noted the work he had done to form connections between Yale Police and New Haven.

“Under [Higgins’] guidance, the Yale Police Department gained national recognition as a model for community engagement,” Callahan wrote. “Recognizing the significance of police and community engagement, he served as Yale’s primary public safety leader and key liaison to our New Haven neighbors.”

Higgins is stepping into the role of commissioner as the Connecticut State Police Department is currently under investigation for allegedly falsifying tens of thousands of tickets over a seven year span, including intentionally undercounting traffic stops of Black and non-white Hispanic drivers.

In July, Lamont appointed former federal prosecutor Diedre Daly to lead an independent investigation into the alleged ticket falsification.

During the same press conference at which Lamont announced Higgins’s promotion, he also announced the retirement of Rovella and Colonel Stavros Mellekas, the top two public safety officials in the state.

Lamont said Higgins would be in charge of finding the replacement for Mellekas as the commanding officer of the state police.

Higgins will need to be confirmed by the Connecticut General Assembly, whose 2024 session opens on Feb. 7, 2024. In the meantime, he will serve as interim commissioner. 

Hannah Kotler covers Cops & Courts and Transportation for the City desk. She is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles majoring in Ethics, Politics, Economics.