The fleeing driver tore his Chevy HHR through the red light. Gunning his police-issue 2003 Harley Davidson Police Road King, Officer Robert DuPont followed fast behind. Then he saw the cars in the middle of the intersection. He saw all that sand in the road. He saw a wipeout in his immediate future—unless he could remember what he’d recently un-learned.
“Operation Safe Summer” was just beginning. The police department had sent motorcycle cops like DuPont (pictured above) to Meriden for intensive state police academy training. Now it was dispatching the crew to some of New Haven’s toughest streets to combine traffic enforcement with ferreting out guns and drugs and felons.
For lifelong motorcycle riders like DuPont, that meant learning new tricks and abandoning some old ones.
Like at this intersection at Forbes Avenue and East Street. Sand remained on the road from the winter’s snowstorms and from trucks associated with the Interstate 95 widening project.
That posed one obstacle to staying on his bike at high speed. The cars traveling northbound or southbound on East Street—they had the green; the fleeing driver in the Chevy had run the red—posed another.
The troopers at the academy had warned of situations like this. They drilled DuPont and four fellow New Haven motor cops on “Evade and Escape” maneuvers and techniques to avoid wipeouts. One of them was “threshold braking.”
In the past, on the dirt bikes and then bigger hogs he’s ridden since his early 20s, DuPont would press hard on the back brake until it was almost at the limit of its capacity, then release it suddenly, in the hope of staying on the bike. But on this bike that technique could backfire; the inertia from the back brake could catapult him into the air.
On Forbes, chasing the Chevy driver who had fled speeding from a laser checkpoint, DuPont held tight to the back brake. He suddenly released the front brake instead. He dodged the cars. And he stayed on the bike.
He kept the Chevy in sight toward downtown on Water Street, right on Franklin, right onto Chapel, left on Hamilton—then toward the Interstate 91 ramp. This chase was headed to the highway.
Between Exits 8 and 9, DuPont’s Harley reached its 105 mph limit as the Chevy’s driver weaved through lanes, trying to bump other vehicles into the police motorcycle. Now DuPont had to worry about the “high-speed wobble.” The hard winter had eroded the groove between the lanes on the highway, causing DuPont’s bike to go into the wobble—all the more dangerous because his 2003 model has a one-piece frame, making it more likely to crack. Or at least throw him off onto the road.
At the academy DuPont had learned the best solution: Tap your foot on the ground to transfer some of the bike frame’s energy.
But he couldn’t do that at 105 miles per hour. Or even 65. So he shifted to Plan B, and hoped. He slowed down enough to lessen the wobble. Once the seat and handlebars stopped shaking, he suddenly hit the gas hard. It worked; the bike stayed reasonably steady back at the high speed.
It stayed that way as the Chevy’s driver pulled off at Exit 11, toward a North Haven elementary school, where he ditched the car and ran through a high school lacrosse practice. The coach and the players pointed to the woods, where DuPont and the other New Haven and North Haven cops on the scene found and arrested him.
So began a summer of stories—and thousands of traffic stops, as well as gun and narcotics seizures, and some hair-raising chases.
DuPont and the motor cops amassed those stories on special assignment. Usually they spend their days setting up checkpoints to stop speeders or cellphone-chatting drivers where traffic accidents were occurring or neighbors had complained. They would still do that during “Operation Safe Summer,” except they would be dispatched to districts for weeks on end based on where police were concentrating on different crimes: shootings, murders, drug-dealing.
The idea was that in addition to calming streets plagued by dirt bikers and reckless drivers, the crew would stop people who were up to other nefarious deeds—or, by the crew’s physical presence, at least deter them from hanging around.
The operation’s officers issued 5,602 tickets for traffic violations in Hill, Fair Haven, and Whalley hotspots over four months through the end of August, according to Capt. Leo Bombalicki, who ran it. That doesn’t count all the guns and drugs seized or the outstanding warrants served on those stops, according to Bombalicki.
Bombalicki called DuPont one of the most “motivated” members of the operation. DuPont was involved in a number of gun seizures that began with traffic stops; for instance he and crack canine cop Bitang followed the trail to a loaded Double Eagle Combat Commander .45-caliber ACP in this case.
DuPont, a 35-year-old Westport native who transferred to New Haven force after eight years with the Bridgeport park police, eagerly signed up for the motor patrol last year. He liked his previous patrol beat in the Hill. But he’d always loved riding motorized two-wheelers, from the 1985 dual-purpose Honda Excel 350R he bought at 21 to the Yamaha FJR 1300 to which he eventually advanced.
He enjoyed relearning techniques and picking up new ones at the three-week state course. He and his colleagues mastered nine driving patterns there in tight-space pursuits and crowd control approaches before returning as front-line officers in the police department’s stepped-up traffic enforcement plan. DuPont brought what he learned to the B Squad (3-11 p.m. shift) motor unit.
“The everyday citizen gets upset when you stop them,” DuPont said. As he handed out tickets for minor infractions, drivers asked him: Why are you bothering with speeding tickets or missed front-plate markers or cellphone infractions, when kids are out there shooting each other?
“It leads to reducing the number of accidents,” DuPont would respond—and “you’ll pay less insurance.”
Plus, DuPont and his crew repeatedly found themselves stopping people who ended up having outstanding warrants.
And, he added, “small things lead to bigger things.”
“We have days where we stop four or five people with warrants. Some have two or three on them.”
As happened during one Safe Summer stop on Union Avenue.
It was actually the second of two stops involving the same young man.
The first had happened earlier in the same week. DuPont’s partner, Mark O’Neill, had stopped the man in the Dixwell neighborhood. The man wasn’t driving that day. He was a passenger, riding in a car with a convicted felon. There was a gun in that car. O’Neill checked the registration. The gun belonged to the passenger, not the felon. However, the man had failed to report that he had a new address from the one he used when he originally registered it. It wasn’t clear at that point that he had violated weapons law.
Fast forward to Union Avenue, later that week. DuPont and O’Neill spotted a driver of an Infiniti sedan talking on his cellphone. They stopped the car. O’Neill recognized the driver: The passenger in the previous stop.
The cops found five or so baggies of marijuana in the car. They found a gun again, a .45-caliber pistol. They also checked his record; they found that he had purchased several more guns since the last stop just days before.
Their hunch: The man was possibly a courier for convicted felons, who are prohibited from carrying guns.
They also discovered that the man still had failed to update his home address on his gun permit. It had been weeks since he’d moved. By law, he had 48 days to update the address.
His failure to do so was a felony. So was having marijuana within 1,500 feet of a housing project. Now the cops had more serious charges than the cellphone violation that began the stop.
They had the man in custody. They had his gun in custody. It looked like he wouldn’t get it back.
A Curb Tap
Thanks to DuPont’s Operation Safe Summer squad, others got stolen goods back—including a Hamden man, who reclaimed dirt bikes. Again, a lesson from the state academy helped make that happen.
DuPont, O’Neill and fellow motor unit officer Marco Francia were on the trail of one fleeing dirt bike rider in Fair Haven (who had crashed into a car) when DuPont saw another kid zooming around the neighborhood, speeding like a demon and traveling in the wrong lane against traffic. The kid was headed toward the Quinnipiac River.
The officer followed. DuPont kept up with the kid across the Ferry Street bridge, then lost him amid construction on Quinnipiac Avenue. They kept looking; Francia, who’d been in a car, eventually found the dirt bike crashed and ditched on Judith Terrace by a Jersey barrier at a dead end. The street was busy; kids were playing in water spraying from a hydrant.
DuPont showed up; neighbors pointed to where the man had run.
DuPont could see him as he pulled up to the barrier. He needed to get around it, jump a curb and ride over a small wooded area before regaining pavement on Crofton Street.
“It was tight,” he recalled. He remembered his recent training about tight corners and riding off-road; unlike dirt bikes that have loose suspension and knobby tires, DuPont’s Harley wasn’t made for absorbing the shock of hitting curbs. The risk: damaging the frame or ripping the kickstand.
He remembered to slow down to the curb, tap it with his front tire, move forward cautiously. “Get your back tire to the curb,” he said. “When you feel that, release the clutch, give it some gas.”
He made the curb without stopping, looped around some trees, was back on the street. He saw the fleeing man enter a condo complex. Neighbors there led the cops to him.
Francia traced the identification number on the bike; a Hamden man had reported it stolen. DuPont contacted the man that night. It turned out the man had reported three stolen bikes. The motor unit found a second one later that week—and resumed hunting for others.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Michael Wuchek