June 17, 2008

New Police Chief Outlines Sweeping Changes

By William Kaempffer, New Haven Register, Conn.

Jun. 17--NEW HAVEN -- The city Monday introduced the Police Department's next chief, who eschewed retirement to take over the 400-member force for at least the next 19 months.

At an aftern o o n p r e s s c o n f e r e n c e , James Lewis, 57, a 37-veteran of law enforcement, vowed to give his officers "unprecedented latitude" to solve problems on their beats, reinstitute a gang intelligence unit as a clearinghouse for information in New Haven, create a truancy prevention center with the Board of Education and institute internal safeguards that should prevent the types of breakdowns that let corruption go unchecked in the city's narcotics squad.

It was that scandal, which led to the arrest and conviction of three police officers, that set the stage for Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to go outside the department for the first time to select a chief.

"I feel sorry, frankly, for the street officer right now, because (they) have had a tough time because of a few people. Every one of these street cops, I can guarantee you, every time they make an arrest, somebody is throwing it up into their face, 'Well, you guys take money. You guys do this'," said Lewis, who praised the officers he's met so far in New Haven.

"They're getting beat up and they don't deserve it. So, we need the community to realize that, and celebrate the good cops and we'll take care of the very, very occasional bad cops."

Lewis will start in New Haven July 7, three days after his 58th birthday, and pledged to be a visible chief. He will earn $150,000 a year. He doesn't aspire to stay long term, and will serve out the remainder of retired police Chief Francisco Ortiz Jr.'s contract, which expires in February 2010. If he accomplishes what he hopes to, he said, there will be a successor ready to take his place. If not, he will sit down with the mayor to decide the course.

The need for reform at the department was made clear in a 2007 consultant's report commissioned after the scandal broke, DeStefano said, but he made of point of giving a vote of confidence to the rank-and-file.

"Whiletherearethingstofix,this is not a situation where our police officers need fixing. By any comparison, anywhere, our officers work hard. They care about their neighborhood and are professional at their work. They have mine and this community's respect."

Lewis also said he needs to earn the trust of his officers and the community through action.

Lewis had eased into retire-Research Forum, for which he's done consulting work and which was conducting the police chief search for New Haven, contacted him. He was aware of the opening when the city posted it last year and didn't apply, but took a second look. His last job was as interim chief in small-town Grand Chute, Wis.

Before that, he led the department in Pomona, Calif., from 2003-06, and Green Bay, Wis., from 1995 to 2003, both cities similar in size to New Haven and with some of the same issues.

He spent his career before that with the Bakersfield, Calif., Police Department.

In Pomona, he took the helm when the department was in flux with low morale and personnel issues, and when the city was struggling to deal with violent gangs, according to Pomona Mayor Norma J. Torres.

His ability to build consensus in a very political city won him respect, and "he really brought a sense of professionalism to the department," she said.

"With him, what you see is what you get," she said.

In Green Bay, he instituted about a dozen two-officer teams to work to solve issues in individual neighborhoods, and gave them wide latitude to do it as they saw fit, he said. Every 90 days, teams did newsletters detailing what they had accomplished, and they were distributed to politicians and block watches. That promoted accountability.

"You can blow smoke past the chief pretty easily ... but it's pretty hard to tell a guy in his neightraffic in his neighborhood if you didn't," Lewis said.

New Haven police union President Sgt. Louis G. Cavaliere and his executive board met with Lewis Monday and said they would start with a clean slate.

It's the chief's prerogative to institute change, and the union only asked Lewis be measured and include it in the discussions, said Cavaliere, who has been on the department almost 41 years.

"He's very positive in working with us and that's all we can ask for from the new chief. What I did tell him is if there's going to be changes in the rank and file, if you do it overnight, there's going to be a lot of resentment."

Edgewood neighborhood activist Eliezer Greer, a harsh critic of Ortiz and thorn in his side with his armed citizen patrol, said he was impressed with Lewis' attitude toward giving wider latitude to officers to "stretch their muscles" to solve problems in neighborhoods.

The father of a police officer in Wisconsin, Lewis will live downtown with his wife.

Acting Chief Stephanie Redding will continue to lead the department until Lewis arrives.


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