Conn. city's search for new police chief comes as ranks shrink
New Haven is looking for a top leader following the former chief's decision to retire at the end of March
Mary E. O'Leary
New Haven Register, Conn.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Parochial and political decisions on choosing a police chief won’t bring the best candidate to the job.
John DeCarlo, a former police chief himself, and now chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven, said he has studied this and watched how decisions on such an important position across the country are narrowly focused with a hyper-local emphasis and no national standard.
The strong home rule concept explains a lot of that, leaving Connecticut with 102 police departments, part of more than 18,500 departments across the country, although other states with county government make regional cooperation and expense sharing more feasible.
Less than two years after it went through the trauma of replacing Dean Esserman as its chief in 2016 after a tumultuous tenure, New Haven will again be looking for a top cop following Chief Anthony Campbell’s abrupt decision last week to retire at the end of March over threatened medical benefit changes in stalled contract negotiations.
It is also an election year with a Democratic primary in September in a race that is expected to be Mayor Toni Harp’s toughest since she was elected in 2013. She won that three-way primary, but then was challenged by Justin Elicker, the primary runner-up, who is again running for mayor with a stronger network of supporters.
With the need for a new chief coming as the police contract remains in limbo in binding arbitration, DeCarlo said New Haven is in a no-win situation.
Harp has indicated that she is leaning toward hiring an internal officer, although the universe of experienced candidates is narrow and potentially getting more so as three of the four assistant chiefs are looking for new jobs.
DeCarlo said he would like to see the city take a chance on bringing in an experienced chief steeped in academic training. He referred to the acolytes trained under such leaders as Police Commissioner William Bratton in New York, and others, who spread the gospel of community policing and accountability across the country.
Looking at the universe of former New Haven chiefs, DeCarlo said two stand out as big picture thinkers. The first he mentioned was James Ahern, the author of “Police in Trouble; our freightening crisis in law enforcement,” who was in office from 1968 to 1970 during the Black Panther murder case and the 1970 May Day protests and calmed what could have been an explosive event. Ahern, who also was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal, was later named to the President’s Commision on Campus Arrest.
The second was Nicholas Pastore, who brought in community policing under Mayor John Daniels, a concept fostered by then Alderwoman Toni Harp.
Pastore’s tenure ended after complications in his personal life pushed him out, while Ahern’s reputation was hurt six years after he left office when Andrew Houlding broke the story in the New Haven Journal Courier about massive illegal wiretapping around the Black Panther trial. The wiretapping ended in 1971, but was the subject of a civil suit settled in 1984. James Ahern denied being part of the wiretapping with his brother, Police Inspector Stephen Ahern, both of whom paid the plaintiffs in a city settlement.
DeCarlo said the Bratton followers represented a renaissance of effective policing. “Where is the next generation of luminary police leaders? Where do they come from? How do we make them?” he asked. His advice to New Haven is to go find one.
DeCarlo, the former Branford police chief, said he realizes that goes against the tide, as the overwhelming majority of departments pick from within. “There is a reason why 95 percent of people (chiefs) are from the inside. The politicians and the troops know what they got,” he said.
“It’s a great profession, but we do it so poorly sometimes. The police are on the surface of this argument. I always say the police chief has three constituencies — the rank and file; the community and the politicians,” he said.
Right now the defining issue for police in New Haven is the lack of a contract for more than 21/2 years. The rank and file rejected a proposal 294 to 4 and the officers subsequently voted to go to binding arbitration.
On Feb. 1, Campbell announced that he would be leaving the department on March 29.
He said it was a decision he made after a discussion with aldermanic leadership on Jan. 17, where he asked if they would consider putting himself and the four assistant chiefs into the executive management plan because of a police contract proposal to remove the cap on the $540 monthly payment for retiree medical benefits.
Campbell said he wanted to give the alders a heads up that three of the chiefs were looking to leave. He was not among them at that time, although he was considering retiring by the end of the year.
If experienced management did leave, Campbell said the remaining officers with supervisory rank would only have had 11 years on the job, something that could put the city in a position of having to bring in the state police to help out.
Campbell, who has 21 years in the department, nearly three years as interim and then chief of the department, said his takeaway was that rejection of the chiefs’ executive management proposal by the leadership was final, although aldermanic President Tyisha Walker-Myers said that was not the case. It was the remark by Alder Dolores Colon, D-6, however, that he was “blackmailing” them with his predictions on the potential decimation of the top ranks that questioned his integrity. The chief said Colon told him if he gets an offer, he should take it.
Morale was already low among the rank and file, but the proposal by Campbell was seen by the union as a special carve-out. Campbell said the chiefs are not part of the union and have no one speaking for them. He said he has also advocated for raises for the force as essential to stemming the large numbers leaving.
New police union President Florencio Cotto Jr. said they don’t understand why the administration has not settled a contract. With $6 million in concessions in the last agreement that ended in 2016, Cotto said they can’t give anymore, particularly in light of the disparity between the salaries offered by other smaller departments.
“It is time that the Harp administration put the police as a priority,” he said. Cotto said praise for the job police are doing in lowering crime, is not matched by a contract that rewards them. Cotto said the high cost of training police is also generating little return with officers bolting for other opportunities.
Forty-nine officers retired from the department last year, while 10 more have put in for retirement in the past four weeks. Campbell said 39 more are in a position to retire.
In any calculation of a contract settlement. the city’s finances are a major factor the arbitrators will consider.
Harp raised the tax rate 11 percent for this fiscal year following a shortfall in state funds and has said her goal is not to raise taxes in fiscal 2020. Part of any budget decision is the problem of ever escalating medical costs, tackling a $30 million structural deficit and stabilizing two pension funds that are $700 million underfunded.
Sean Matteson, the interim chief administrative officer for the city, who oversees the public safety departments, said he thought it was important to bring the chiefs’ concerns to the aldermanic leadership, who ultimately will be voting on the 2019-20 budget that will be presented by the mayor in March.
Many outside the department are asking, with the stakes so high: can’t the parties step back from the arbitration process and fix the disagreement on their own, rather than allowing a panel of arbitrators to choose between the best package presented by each party? Neither side has yet put its best last offer on the table.
It could be months before that happens and then the panel needs time to render its decision.
“At any point in time, the parties could make a deal and stop binding arbitration,” Labor Relations Director Thomas McCarthy said.
That has not happened.
“Just as a general statement, it is better for us to make a deal because at least we make the decision — both sides — meaning the union and the city, as opposed to an outsider, deciding what is best,” he said.
Harp has said the same thing, as has Campbell. The chief said the uncertainty of what a future contract holds plays into people leaving the department.
Matteson said in negotiations you have to consider all the constituents in a bargaining unit, where there can be a split between the younger members interested in raises over benefits, while the seasoned members, such as the chiefs, stayed long enough to reap a benefit package they had counted on. New Haven currently has a young department.
Campbell is not in negotiations, but he said the city’s representative in those talks does come and ask what he needs to run the department. He said he told them the rank and file need to be better paid.
“I need them paid more and I need the steps reduced,” the chief said. He said it takes four years to get to the top pay. He said a new officer starts and stays at $44,400 for the first two years. In the third year, you get approximately $52,000 and in the fourth year, the salary is $68,000.
He said other departments start out at $68,000. Campbell said Yale University offers new recruits a starting salary in the upper $70,000 and tops out at $96,000. West Hartford starts at $67,000 and tops out at $90,000. Hamden starts higher than New Haven and tops out around $83,000. “How do I compete with that?” he said.
Given how expensive medical coverage is for the general population and the lack of pensions for most, what does the chief say to those who lack empathy for his concerns?
Campbell said the estimated 700,000 sworn police officers in this country are the “first line and only line of defense” for 350 million Americans. “All we ask is that our lives and the sacrifices that we make are honored in that way. Three-hundred and forty-nine million people don’t put on a bullet proof vest, strap on a gun and go out and say goodbye to their families, possibly for the last time and say I will lay down my life for a stranger to uphold the law and the Constitution of this land.”
He said if there is a terrorist attack, a plane crash, power goes out, someone breaks into home, they are the ones called to restore peace.
“If that doesn’t bear the honor of being respected with health care for you and your family, I don’t know what should,” Campbell said.
©2019 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)