Cop Of The Week

by Paul Bass | May 30, 2006 9:53 AM |

David Coppola had never heard of the “broken windows” theory of policing when he followed up a routine call at the Farnam Court projects. He ended up putting that theory into practice anyway — preventing bigger problems in the neighborhood, and running into one weird drug dealer.

Coppola, who’s 42, is a beat cop. He joined the force in 1988. He works hard; he’s known for never saying no to an overtime job. He keeps his hair in a crew cut, which he does himself every few weeks. (“Can you imagine paying someone every three weeks to do this?”)

Coppola doesn’t concern himself with promotional exams or theoretical discussions among the bigwigs, like the talk about the “broken-windows” theory that motivated the change in New Haven to community policing in 1990. According to that theory, police don’t make the biggest long-term difference by chasing after major crime after it happens. They make the difference by following up on small nuisance crimes that send out the signal to lawbreakers that rules aren’t enforced. Broken windows were a metaphor for small nuisances — loitering, graffiti, public drinking — that lead to rampant major crime, a breakdown in social order, if left unaddressed.

A broken window wasn’t a metaphor for Dave Coppola when he started the 3-11 p.m. shift last Tuesday. It was a literal phrase on the computer screen in his patrol car. He was checking the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) reports of calls in to the department. Someone at 199 Franklin St., in the Farnam Court project hard by I-91, had reported a broken window.

Coppola went over to check it out. Yep, a first-floor window pane was shattered. He knocked on the door. A 23 year-old man in jeans and a T-shirt answered.

“These kids broke my window,” the man said.

“Did you see who did it?” Coppola asked.

“No. I just wanted to file a report.” The report would help the tenant convince the housing authority to pay for the repair.

Coppola returned to his squad car. He decided to write the report there. He figured his presence would prevent further problems, because the kids would see him there and avoid bothering the tenant (the kind of figuring that social scientists would include in “broken window” theorizing).

Indeed, a bunch of kids did notice Coppola. At least eight of them, around 8 to 12 years old, ran up to his car. “That guy you were just talking to,” one of them said, “pointed a gun at us!”

At first Coppola didn’t believe them. “Are you sure it was a gun?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” an older boy answered.

“Don’t leave,” Coppola said. “I need you to stay here” in case he needed further information. Then he returned to the door and knocked.

The man answered the door again. Coppola patted him down.

“Why did you do that?” he asked Coppola.

“Those guys said you pointed a gun at them.”

“No gun. A knife, maybe.”

The man’s mother was in the apartment. So were several young children. The mother didn’t speak English.

“Donde la pistola?” Coppola asked the mom.

The 23 year-old man answered. “No pistola!” he insisted. “I’ll prove it to you. I don’t have a gun. Come to my room.”

He proceeded to lead Coppola to his bedroom and pull two drawers from the dresser. They crashed on the ground, breaking apart. He was right. No pistola to be found. Instead the pile contained green glassine bags used for selling crack.

“You’re under arrest,” Coppola told the man.

“For what?”

“The bags.”

“I have way more than that,” he said. He proceeded to pull open another drawer. It had a digital scale.

“Stop! Stop right there!” Coppola cried. He didn’t know if the man was high or stupid. All he knew was he needed permission to search the place. “Don’t tell me any more!” he said.

He handcuffed the man and called for a back-up, Spanish-speaking officer. Then he retrieved a consent form which the mother signed permitting the cops to search the apartment. She told Officer Diego Quintero that the son never paid rent. “I don’t want him here,” she said. The subsequent search revealed thousands of glassine bags, two digital scales, crack cocaine, powder cocaine, and percocets.

City police Chief Francisco Ortiz called Coppola’s work a model of broken-windows policing. “He could have easily blown off” the call or filed a quick report and left, Ortiz noted. “He made that visit meaningful. The end result is the community got the value of a competent police officer uncovering a” drug den.

“He’s obviously a cog in the wheel in the factory works in that part of town,” Coppola said of the 23 year-old arrestee. “He’s just not the brightest person I ever met. People are criminals for a reason, in my opinion. They choose criminal activity because they’re not smart enough to be a real job. You can quote me on that.”

A Bag Job

The next evening Coppola encountered another call that left him shaking his head. A woman on Atwater Street in Fair Haven was lying motionless and cold to the touch. Coppola went to the house. He found the 59 year-old woman dead on her bed, lying in her waste. “Her stomach had a hole in it. It was probably the size of a large cantaloupe, six to eight inches wide.”

He also found a parakeet, a cat, and seven dogs in the apartment. Their waste, too, was all over the place. The woman’s husband was there. He said she hadn’t been to a doctor in 30 years. His 32 year-old daughter, who is mildly retarded, also lay in her bed and apparently hadn’t been out of bed for a while.

Detectives arrived, as did a medical examiner, who said the 59 year-old woman had been dead for hours. Coppola wanted to arrest the husband. Not yet, the detectives said. They needed to investigate first, prepare a warrant, and check with the state Department of Mental Retardation to see who had legal responsibility for the daughter.

Coppola’s remaining job was to help two medical technicians carry out the body. They put her in two separate bags, then wrapped a sheet around her.

“I’ve been on 20, 25 sudden death calls,” Coppola said. “I’ve never had to help someone in a Tyvex suit carry someone out who has a hole in their stomach. It was pretty bizarre.

“How do you describe stench? The smell of death permeated my clothes the rest of the day.”

Breakfast Shifts

How do you deal with an experience like that? Coppola talks it through with his wife, Rachel (pictured above). He couldn’t do that for hours after the Atwater Street episode. He had to finish his shift. And then, of course, he had an extra-duty job at one of the downtown bars. He didn’t get home to North Haven until 1:30 a.m. He and Rachel were waking up early the next morning. But he did awaken her to tell her what happened.

They wake up early every morning, seven mornings a week, to open and cook the home fries and eggs at The Breakfast Nook, a bright and cozy restaurant they own on Washington Avenue. On top of that, they have four kids. On top of that, Dave hopes to open his own landscaping business soon. The man has stamina. He likes to work.

Last Friday, he and Rachel had a night out planned. It was her idea.

(To read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(To suggest an officer to be featured, click here.)

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