New #2 Yale Cop Breaks Barriers

by Paul Bass | July 25, 2008 2:17 PM | | Comments (12)

DSCNhggins0727.JPGThe Latin Kings and another gang were on the verge of a rumble. Ronnell Higgins and one other officer were alone. Their best option: Start talking.

The incident occurred at a Bridgeport jail. Higgins was a corrections officer then, not a police officer.

Higgins learned an important lesson about communicating and defusing violence that day, and many other days, at the Bridgeport Correctional Center. It proved to be a training ground for a future cop who’d apply the ideas of community policing to the streets of New Haven.

Higgins has a new perch from which to promote community policing: This week he became assistant chief of the 83-member Yale police force. He’s believed to be the first African-American to hold the position.

The position had been vacant for 10 years. Chief James Perrotti said he decided to fill it because the department has grown so fast. In conjunction with city cops, Yale’s force patrols a swath of town from Daggett Street in the Hill to East Rock’s Highland, from Dwight Street east to Church Street.

In his new job, Higgins, who’s 37, will oversee the patrol division (which he used to supervise), investigative services (where he once served as second in command), communications, and training.

He calls himself a “product of the New Haven Police Academy.” He trained there in 1996, at the height of community policing. He embraces the philosophy, from the idea of lots of cops patrolling on foot, bike (or Segway, which two Yale cops do), to communicating often with people to discover potential problems before they turn into trouble.

DSCN0701.JPG“Isn’t that what community policing is all about?” he said during an interview in his second-floor office at the Yale p.d.’s new Ashmun Street home. “Finding out what the problem is? A lot of times it’s not a crime. Lights. Or ‘Let’s get the milk crates out from under the windows.’ Communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Higgins first came to embrace that mantra in his three and a half years at the Bridgeport jail. At the time he had resisted the idea of following his father, then-New Haven Lt. Reginald Higgins, into a police career. Instead, he thought he became a corrections officer.

“You had everyone from felony murderers to 30-day DUI (driving under the influence) offenders,” Higgins recalled. “You’re outnumbered — two officers to 75 inmates. Your interpersonal skills come into play.”

On that Memorial Day, for instance, when “the Latin Kings were in a disagreement” — a hot disagreement — with another gang in the jail.

Higgins was in charge of Memorial 2 Dormitory. Only one other officer was with him. The rest of the officers had been called to attend to an emergency in another part of the jail.

Higgins knew he and his colleague couldn’t contain a fight.

“So we decided to talk and broke a truce with the groups. It would have made for a bad day if things went down,” said Higgins, a man inclined to understatement.

“We talked with them about what the problem was.” Close quarters appeared to be the root of the problem: “Nobody wants to sleep next to someone who’s smelly.”

Turned out one of the gangs’ newer inmates hadn’t yet “really picked up on the cleanliness code” in his first week behind bars. Higgins pulled him aside. “I asked him to take a shower.” Which he did.

No riot.

The police “bug” finally “got me,” Higgins said, in 1996. He became a Yale cop in 1997 and rose steadily through the ranks.

Along the way, he worked closely with two New Haven cops active with young people in the Dixwell neighborhood: Shafiq Abdussabur and District Manager Anthony Duff. Higgins participated in Abdussabur’s CTribat program. He showed up at anti-violence Brotherhood Leadership Summits in Dixwell. Both Duff and Abudssabur said Higgins has been a bridge between the two departments.

Meanwhile Yale has been building bridges in Dixwell. At the neighborhood’s request, it built is new police station there combined with the Rose Center, a space for youth programs; and it is helping to revive Scantlebury Park.

At first Higgins patrolled downtown on the midnight shift in his Yale police job. Colleagues were surprised at how many people he knew on the street. He may have gone from “jail to Yale,” as some put it, but so did some of his “former clients.” (He used that phrase.)

Some were returning to New Haven after their sentences; Higgins might run into them on their ways home from a second- or third-shift job. Others had moved to halfway houses here.

Many of the reunions were friendly, Higgins said. One reunion was with a man he’d first met in a jail corridor one day. The man, who’d been involved with gangs, was serving an extended term. He was on his way to visit a fellow inmate in another part of the jail — his teenaged son, who was staring at 15 to 20 years himself.

“The father broke down afterwards. He said, ‘I wasn’t there for my son.’” Higgins arranged to have the man moved to a part of the jail closer to his son, so they’d bump into each other more often.

On the Yale beat, Higgins said, he found communicating with people equally crucial. In responding to noise complaints, for instance.

“It’s a college campus. People are going to play loud music,” Higgins said. He’ll “explain to the student, ‘There are other people who live here. You have a responsibility to them.’ Explain it this way instead of saying, ‘Turn it down!’ Modern-day leaders lead by understanding, not intimidation.”

DSCN0728.JPGHiggins lives in Morris Cove with his wife Robin Higgins, a New haven police detective (they met on a joint domestic-violence case) and their two young children. “I love New Haven,” Higgins said.

Would he love to be Yale’s police chief one day?

“Who wouldn’t?” he replied. But he’s not thinking about that, he said. “I have a lot of work to do. I have to concentrate on being assistant chief. I’m fortunate to be where I am.”

(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, here, here, here, here, here, 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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Posted by: Paul Wessel | July 25, 2008 3:11 PM

Nice piece, especially following up on recent events less hopeful events around town. Sounds like a good move by Yale, and good news for our city.

It also reminds me why I subscribe to the New Haven Independent (a painless ten bucks a month on my credit card) when I don't have to - hint, hint: click "send us money" in the gray bar at the top of this page to do your part.

Thanks for closing this week with this story.

Posted by: jahad | July 25, 2008 5:55 PM

From one chief to another, i extend congratulations to Chief Higgins...I've known him long before his days at Bridgeport Correctional Center and he is the epitome of integrity and hard work. While working with Chief Higgins at Bridgeport Correctional Center, he immediately displayed a high level of professionalism and motivation. As a police officer, he has reached out in building relationships with other law enforcement agencies and is a willing participant in several committees and grassroots organizations. I am excited for him and am sure that he will take a leadership role in the re-emergence of community policing.

Posted by: Latonya Bailey | July 26, 2008 11:55 AM

Very Good article! Chief Higgins is definitely the man for the J.O.B.! I'm so proud of him he has and will continue to serve as a Excellent asset to the community! Once again Congrads! and we need more like Chief Higgins around!

Posted by: bfair [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 27, 2008 9:22 AM

Kudos to a fine officer!!! "LEADERS LEAD BY UNDERSTANDING NOT INTIMIDATION".Sounds like the type chief we need in New Haven, someone who has the ability to engage as opposed to intimidate. Maybe he can meet with Lewis to give him some much needed pointers. No surprise that Higgins collaborates with two of New Haven's TRULY FINEST and SUPERIOR officers, Shafig and Duff. If the mayor really wanted a real leader in New Haven he did not have to look outside the department. Makes me wonder what style of policing he wants in the city.

Posted by: CTRIBAT | July 28, 2008 10:57 AM

Congratulations for Assistant Chief Higgins he has be the "Second Sun Rise" for youth in the Dixwell Area. Special thanks to Chief James Perrotti for all of his help and assistance in the past. We look forward in continuing to work together to develop our youth into future leaders.

Posted by: Deuce | July 28, 2008 1:55 PM

BFair wrote: "Maybe he can meet with Lewis to give him some much needed pointers"

Lewis just started the job. What problem do you have with him already?

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 29, 2008 3:57 PM

Some residents expressed concerns that crime is rarely reported by citizens who witness it, whether out of fear or resignation that nothing will be done .

Its is not just fear in CERTAIN parts of the city crime "drug dealing" has not been enforced. Those community's..did call at one time. But the city has pretty much let them know that this is the way it is, get use to it! So why bother calling, they never be able to stop it. If the calls are not there then your community must not need help, was the next response. Well the calls where there but why bother, second the block watch does report the crime houses.
Last night the chiefs answers where what I wanted to hear! This train of though that unless your community is calling you must not need help is FINALLY OVER! Crossing my fingers!

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 29, 2008 3:59 PM

donk post this in the wrong thread.....tee hee can you erase

Posted by: jackie | July 29, 2008 9:35 PM


also, leaders are not afraid to take the necessary (sometimes uncomfortable and unpopular) steps to ensure public safety. sometimes enforcing the law IS understanding--i.e., understanding that a requirement of civil society is the enforcement of law and protection of law abiding citizens. so don't be so harsh on lewis. so far, so good, as far as i'm concerned.

Posted by: dwightstreetrenter [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 29, 2008 11:11 PM

inspiring officers like these are why I'm seriously considering applying to join the Yale force!

Posted by: bfair [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 30, 2008 10:12 AM

Deuce and Jackie:"harsh" or "problems wth lewis" because I responded postively to Higgins approach and thought maybe Lewis could use some of that? My comments have more to do with how lewis came on board like a cowboy from outwest. "Aggressive policing" as opposed to "community policing' led Billy White and his cohorts to prison,"I trust cops" despiterecent revealaitons of corruption , and the mere fact that he granted officers "all the latitude" they need with his support. Most officers are law abidng but the few that are not can do some serious damage. I refuse to close my eyes to them while you might. And yes leading means doing and saying what's "unpopular and uncomfortable".i can attest to that. ANYTHING i say (uncomfortable and unpopular) beckons a response and my response is.... "Let's agree to dosagree". What's a good fit for you may not be a good fit for me. I'm for a safe community but not at the expense of violating people's rights and well being. Police should not be seen as an occupying force in the community. They are there "to protect and serve"and the ends don't always justify the means; but then that's me. You don't have to agree.

Posted by: Deuce | July 30, 2008 11:33 AM

"Deuce and Jackie: "harsh" or "problems wth lewis" because I responded postively to Higgins approach and thought maybe Lewis could use some of that? My comments have more to do with how lewis came on board like a cowboy from outwest."

So you admit that you do indeed have a problem with Lewis. Why couldn't you just praise and congratulate Higgins without getting negative about our new Chief?

"I'm for a safe community but not at the expense of violating people's rights and well being."

And what rights and well being has Lewis violated?

"Police should not be seen as an occupying force in the community".

Unless the community is already occupied by gangs and individual thugs.

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