Drug Unit Chief Forges New Approach

by Paul Bass | September 11, 2009 12:23 PM | | Comments (20)

newvellecathomas.jpgFirst he noticed the gun where the baby had been sitting. Then he noticed the boys outside shooting hoops. That made John Velleca think about his own days shooting hoops — and about why he now spends his time busting drug dealers.

Lt. Velleca and the team of cops he oversees have been chasing drug dealers for over six months now. The scene of the baby on Valley Street shocked him, in one sense. In another, it was all too common.

The tactical narcotics unit, which Velleca rebuilt from scratch as part of a police shake-up, has come across young children all the time in its work. Before busting into a suspected drug house, the cops check with their informants about whether to expect children. They map out the house, identifying kids’ rooms.

But two weeks ago, when the unit raided a crack factory inside an apartment at the Valley Townhouses in the West Hills neighborhood, the informant hadn’t said anything about children.

As soon as the dozen detectives and sergeants entered the apartment, they spotted a mother holding an 8-month-old baby. Det. Lisa Tuozzoli approached the mother. She asked her to pass the baby. Tuozzoli took the baby outside so he wouldn’t be around the commotion.

Next, the mother was brought outside. There, on the couch where she’d been sitting, lay a loaded Ruger 9 mm.

Nearby were crack cocaine, packaging materials, and two men wanted for violent crimes. One of the men, too, was armed.

As his team went about its work, Velleca thought about what he’d seen.

“It’s one thing to risk your own life,” he reflected. “I couldn’t believe a mother would put her child in jeopardy like that. What the hell [was she] doing with a kid in there?”

Afterward, there was no need for Velleca to talk with the two sergeants and 12 detectives in his unit about what they’d seen. All of the team members reporting to Velleca have children. He knows how powerful it feels for them to see other children at risk. There was no need to talk about how that makes their work even more important. “We know that,” he said.

Velleca doesn’t have children. He does have memories.

Across from the apartment he saw a basketball game going on. He recalled growing up in the Foxon area of East Haven, where his father ran a free basketball clinic for kids.

“We were always out in our neighborhood, playing football with friends. You could play basketball,” he recalled. “You never had to worry about drug dealers, shootings. My heart goes out to these kids. How could you properly mature in that environment?”

Cops can’t solve that problem. In Velleca’s view, they can help.

Targeting, Technology

Wearing an Ultimate Fighting Championships cap and a black Tactical Narcotics Unit T-shirt, Velleca spoke in an interview at police headquarters about what he called a new philosophy in the unit that he rebuilt after a corruption scandal shut it down.

Historically, units like Velleca’s, with their battering rams and round-ups of street dealers, have served as symbols of the War on Drugs. To supporters, they represented tough action on a menace that destroys neighborhoods. To critics, they represented a futile and counterproductive assault on low-level drug offenders who end up returning to the streets anyway.

DSCN5224.JPGVelleca sought a different path from either outlook when Chief James Lewis last fall appointed him the “commander” to reconstitute the narcotics unit.

With a new mission statement and a new logo for its outfits, the unit hit the street in February. Besides targeting drug dealers, it busted and permanently shut down two massage parlors believed to be part of a nationwide Korean sex ring. Velleca also formed a two-person gang intelligence team.

And the team has been busy serving warrants on AWOL offenders and raiding drug “factories.”

“We get caught up in the ‘War on Drugs’ cliche. This is not a war. The war is in Afghanistan,” said Velleca, who’s 40 and an 18-year veteran of the force.

“We’re trying to make our neighborhoods safer. Everybody should be able to enjoy their neighborhoods. They shouldn’t be afraid.”

In the 1980s, the police department had a so-called “Beat Down Posse”: a van of cops who stopped at drug corners to rough up suspected dealers. That ended with community policing in the 1990s. After that, the department briefly experimented with “ID-Net,” temporary saturation patrols and shakedowns in drug-plagued areas.

Velleca said he had no interest in that kind of policing when he took over the unit. Same with the cops who signed up. They all wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be “rolling into neighborhoods,” showing up on corners to frisk people at random, Velleca said.

In the past, Velleca said, “you [would] shake down 20 people and find two with drugs and say, ‘That’s good.’”

The new approach: targeting. Or as Chief Lewis calls it, “Targeted Area Policing,” or TAP. The unit goes after people it has already investigated and concluded are involved in the drug trade.

In addition to traditional informants and surveillance, Velleca has his eye on technology. He follows posts on the SeeClickFix citizen reporting website; his unit has made busts based on tips there. His gang-monitoring detectives find information right on Facebook and MySpace. Velleca can now receive text messages via the department’s tip line. This week he received a print-out of messages from a woman reporting a neighbor dealing in drugs on Thorn Street; Velleca planned to have someone check out the owner of a maroon Jeep Cherokee listed in one message.

In the past, Velleca said, the unit measured results by quantity. The more arrests, the better job it was doing.

The new unit does still keep stats. Tuesday he had a print-out showing 60 investigations started in August, 24 arrests, 14 search warrants executed, 10.3 grams of crack seized, 23 pounds of marijuana. (Click here for a story on a press conference about its first 100 days, stat-wise.)

But the unit doesn’t measure its success primarily through numbers, Velleca said. It measures through quality. “If we have to open only three investigations, that’s a win. We’re not a numbers-driven-unit.” His cops, he said, would “rather take one or two guns off the street than 300 kilos.”

Broken Windows Redux

222velleca.jpgNew Haven’s narcotics cops aren’t going to stop the flow of drugs into the country or the city, Velleca said. Nor do they try to. The feds do that.

The narcotics unit in New Haven is part of a larger effort, he said — not a war against drugs, but a department-wide campaign to maintain order and a decent quality of life that has coincided with a 10 percent drop in crime. The campaign includes traffic enforcement and burglary investigations, among other crimes. Velleca’s cops may be confiscating crack and locking up dealers. But like other city cops they’re primarily fixing “broken windows,” he said.

Which brings up a question: Whose broken windows?

That term has different meanings for different cops, as New Haven has learned.

The term was popularized two decades ago during the dawn of community policing. It refers to nuisance problems in a neighborhood — literal broken windows, loitering, public drunkenness, low-level drug dealing — that receive less attention than major crimes from strapped police departments. “Broken windows” lead to bigger problems in a neighborhood by sending a message of disorder. Rather than chasing after crimes that have already occurred, cops can better protect communities by addressing small problems before they grow, the argument went.

That argument became the basis for community policing experiments across the country. Most experiments shared some approaches: Neighborhood patrol beats, attention to “quality of life crimes,” intense, weekly or daily review of block-by-block statistics in order to spot trends and hold district cops accountable.

From there, the experiments took different forks. In New York City, “broken windows” policing meant locking up squeegee men and as many drug dealers and offenders as possible, with a military, aggressive presence on the streets . In New Haven, it meant “harm reduction.” It meant driving low-level dealing indoors, away from violence, while focusing on and locking up leaders of drug gangs; forming partnerships with social agencies; disciplining rogue cops; enlisting child shrinks to work with cops to identify and help young children who witness violence or start acting out; referring people with drug problems to treatment programs and pioneering the needle exchange. Both New York and New Haven saw dramatic declines in violence.

In the interview this week Velleca advocated a third path: Not random street sweeps. But, yes, a focus on locking up dealers, including lower-level dealers. He considers them broken windows. For several reasons.

One reason: Where you find drug-dealing, you often find violence. Rivals shooting each other. Or customers and dealers pulling guns on each other.

Another reason: Even if there’s not violence now, there will be soon, he argued. Even if drug-dealing business stays stable for as long as six months on a corner, “eventually soemebody is going to try to rob you. You’re going to get a gun. Then it starts.”

Another reason: Even if there weren’t violence, drug-dealing brings disorder to a street. Stoned or drunk people milling around. “Constant traffic.” Unsavory characters. People start to feel uneasy on their own blocks, and unsafe.

And finally, even inside a house, there are little kids like the 8-month-old baby on Valley Street sitting on a loaded gun. It happens more than you might think, he said.

Less than a week after that Valley Townhouses raid, Velleca’s cops returned to a different apartment on the same street. They had a warrant. They found two wanted men, crack, packaging materials, a loaded .357 handgun — and a 9 month-old girl and 6 year-old boy in the room.

When Velleca left the scene of the earlier raid, he didn’t have any illusions about stopping the flow of cocaine into New Haven. He did believe that a little boy was safer than before — and that the basketball game across the street could continue. “At least for tonight,” he said, “they’re not going to have to worry about these idiots” dealing crack.

For his part, Velleca has stopped shooting hoops or watching the game much. He prefers watching baseball these days. And playing golf.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Det. Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Sydney Collier
David Coppola
Joe Dease
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Bertram Etienne
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
Racheal Inconiglios
Hilda Kilpatrick
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
Luis & David Rivera
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Kelly Turner
Alan Wenk
Michael Wuchek
David Zaweski

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

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Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | September 11, 2009 12:40 PM

ok ok we will forgive the fact that you are from staven. But I like this whole TAP thing. And I am totally for anything based on the the Broken Windows theory!! Keep up the good work!

Posted by: rej | September 11, 2009 5:14 PM

what is with all the hot cops lately? did i fall asleep cuz it seems like there are more and more of them who work out and have tats. lt. velleca you are hot!

Posted by: Norton Street | September 11, 2009 5:32 PM

I can agree with pretty much everything Lt. Velleca has said and he is correct about drugs negative effects on communities, especially the problems that stem from early childhood exposure to a culture of drugs.
However, for all the damage that drugs do in our neighborhoods, there is something that hurts our communities more, and not only is it tolerated by the masses, it is the sought after approach for solving some the the city's problems. I am talking, of course, about mass demolition of history for the purpose of building new, large modern structures.


1980s New Haven drug culture wasn't even able to do a fraction of the damage our city does when it tries to improve things. Within 2 blocks in The Hill, streets have been torn up along with hundreds of homes in order to build modern looking (aka extremely ugly) schools. Drugs mostly metaphorically destroy communities while bulldozing blocks of homes, cutting off streets, and putting parking lots in peoples backyards literally destroys our communities and our city.

Keep up the good work Lt. Velleca, and hopefully the city will start working toward building stronger communities instead of destroying them, which will help you with your job.

Posted by: Ben | September 11, 2009 5:43 PM

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Lisa | September 11, 2009 7:12 PM

THANK YOU! I am so glad someone cares enough to get the job done. I will sleep a bit better at night.

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | September 11, 2009 7:36 PM

Norton Street
Totally love you!! I feel the same way!!! Who are you?? Taking away the history also takes away the pride. Look at areas like east rock and wooster st where most of the buildings are a century old... It makes a difference!! PRIDE IN OMMUNITY not to mention the funds and services that are used for those area to maintain the quality of life.

With that said REJ the girls in the office were saying the same thing... all wanting to be arrested by the Lt.

Posted by: Cynical | September 12, 2009 8:57 AM

I shudder to think what goes on under Lt. Velleca's watch. This is the same person who commented in this newspaper that the lives of undocumented immigrants are less worthy than those of his friends on the force. That comment may be worthy of promotion in the East Haven Police Department, but it makes a mockery of New Haven's commitment to tolerance. This approach to confronting drugs is also old school - I don't see how this differs from what has been tried -- and proven unsuccesful before.

Posted by: john | September 12, 2009 11:33 AM

great story, encouraging to see someone motivated by thoughtful civic ideals.

Posted by: robn | September 12, 2009 1:49 PM


Now THATS community appreciation for law enforcement. Thanks for the gun show Lt Vellecca!

Posted by: Edward_H | September 13, 2009 9:48 AM

I am shocked by some of these comments. Some of you are treating him like a piece of meat! If these comments were directed at a female officer I am sure there would be no end of feminists complaining about how no matter how hard a woman works she is always objectified by her appearance.

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | September 13, 2009 12:37 PM

Well Ed then the Lt. is just going to have come and cuff us all :) And I thought that the comments posted were mild compared to the talk I have heard. And besides you are defending the Lt. honor just as the women would defend a females honor. So all is not lost.

But just a side note...when the NHFD stands out with there boots for fund raising how many women verse men put money in them??? Every notice which firemen they put out to collect that money...I know women do! PD and FD depts all over the country do fundraiser calenders how many women buy those calenders verse men??? In fact why do we not have one of those calenders here???

Sorry I am just playing with you ed. sorry if we offended you. John sorry we treated you like a piece of meat :)

Posted by: Edward_H | September 13, 2009 2:01 PM


Not offended at all. Just thought I would have a little fun teasing you guys.

We all know the LT was just asking for the attention because of the way he was dressed anyway. ;)

Posted by: robn | September 13, 2009 3:00 PM

Hey...it never hurts to show some appreciation for the police and for their crime fighting tools...in this case, those tools being Lt Vellecca's mighty crime fighting biceps. If ya got em, flaunt em.

Posted by: Ned | September 14, 2009 10:50 AM

Tats and "big guns" aside:
Better world: Legalise drugs

Posted by: I wish I weren't a law abiding citizen... | September 14, 2009 2:35 PM

Admittedly, the first thing I thought when I saw the article is, "Wow, Lt. Velleca is a hot ticket; I wish I needed to call him for something!" I hope I don't offend you, Lieutenant, that's not my intent, but you are a handsome guy. :)

Anyway, that said, I am pleased with the way the tactical narcotics unit appears to be handling things, and, as a mother myself, I am so glad that there are so many parents on the team who are compassionate about the plight of the children who get roped into dangerous situations. Thank you in particular to Det. Lisa Tuozzoli for removing the baby from a dangerous, scary situation.

Posted by: Consti2amend | September 14, 2009 9:40 PM

A good job by NHPD!

Now, if we could only get a law passed that would exclude "drug & violent" offenders from Sect. 8 housing, OR any form of Government assistance, THAT would be GREAT! If th(is)ese parent(s) doesn't/don't care about the environment their children are in, then why should we!
Yea, I know, I actually DO care about the children. Then maybe we should look into removing them from a dangerous situation. Then they might have a chance to live and be a "productive citizen".
Like I have posted before, maybe there should be an "orphanage" {for the lack of a better term} for them. I know it will mean more in taxes, BUT if the parent(s) is/are NOT back on the government "dole", then I'd say that it is an even swap!!
Child in a "safe" government "home", the parent(s) NOT getting any government benefits!

Posted by: streever | September 15, 2009 8:17 AM

did you know that Obama administration let the public send in the "top priorities"?

overwhelmingly it was "legalize drugs".

Maybe you think that's a good case for what you believe in, but honestly, it's depressing that it is a crucial issue in the middle of two wars, a global recession, & a host of other issues.

Posted by: Ned | September 15, 2009 9:51 AM


What is the [Opium] war in Afghanistan about anyway?

Why are U.S. prisons overflowing?

What is corrupting police all across the U.S.?

What an insult to all of the citizens and taxpayers of New Haven who are paying for Billy White's pension!

How long before the current narco-squad officers succumb to the abuse of power and money of the "drug war"?

All of the above is depressing.

Why should you be allowed to drink alcohol?
Did you know that Connecticut and Rhode Island did not ratify the 18th Amendment?

When a Cynic Wears a Badge:

"In 1990, the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut appointed Nick Pastore as police chief. Pastore was a controversial figure because he did not support the war on drugs. In a 1998 interview with the Drug Policy Foundation he said:

"The drug war is detrimental to policing because it treats the police officers like military in combat and it treats everyone else like the enemy."

And just for the record, I neither smoke nor drink, nor do I encourage anyone else to do so, because, as long as they're not bothering me, it's none of my damn business.

Posted by: Rebecca | September 18, 2009 10:10 AM

I am praying for you all while having your life put on the frontlines for a safer life for us.
Thank you.

Posted by: Ned | September 21, 2009 8:09 AM

In other "drug war" news:
Former U.S. anti-drug official's arrest 'a complete shock!
[yeah, I'm sure]

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