Sarge, Social Worker Rescue Ruoppolo’s Seniors

Paul Bass PhotoDealers and prostitutes were taking over apartments. The seniors were scared. Herb Johnson and Karla Miller decided they had to do something, working together.

It was last August. Johnson, a New Haven police sergeant, had just taken command of the Fair Haven district. Miller had begun work a year earlier as program director for the disabled and seniors living in the Ruoppolo Manor public-housing high-rise on Ferry Street.

Johnson was still getting the knack of the phone mail system when he received two calls from Miller. He went to see her at her office at the tower. She asked him to help her make the things safe and liveable again at Ruoppolo, which like many such public-housing complexes mixes elderly tenants with younger tenants termed “disabled” because of drug or alcohol or mental-health problems. At Ruoppolo, 79 percent of the tenants are non-disabled seniors.

“There was human feces in the hallway. There were needles, condoms in plan view. There were lights out,” recalled Miller, who oversees programs for tenants through a not-for-profit called The Connection Inc.  Connection plans to give Johnson an award Wednesday afternoon at the Community Outreach Center for community service because of his work at Ruoppolo.

“Residents were intimidated and completely fearful,” Miller said. “They would cry and say, ‘I’m afraid to come out of my apartment in the middle of the day.’ I’d never seen anything like that. I didn’t know people lived liked that.”

Dealers would slip into the building and commandeer apartments of addicts. “They were feeding them crack, then taking over their apartment. [They’d say,] ‘I fed you crack last night, so I don’t have to leave.’”

For years tenants had begged the housing authority and the police for help.

At that first meeting, Johnson told Miller he was determined to help her make life safer at Ruoppolo.

Miller looked at him. People had told her stories about receiving such promises in the past. “Are you really going to be there?” she asked.

Johnson assured her. He also gave her his cell phone number. She took that as a good sign.

She took it as a better sign the following month when Johnson had arranged with the housing authority to station extra-duty cops at Ruoppolo and several other housing projects to be visible at key times and to collect information on troublemakers. The authority found money for a several-month campaign.

Miller was also pleased with the busload of Southern Connecticut State University students who pulled up to Ruoppolo on Sept. 11 It was a 9/11-related “day of caring.” Johnson arranged for the kids to help some cops and people at Ruoppolo clean up the grounds, including an outdoor courtyard. They painted the community room yellow. The day ended with a pizza party.

The idea, Johnson and Miller said, was both to make the place nicer, and to build “community” among tenants, cops, and the students.

“It was important to show them we’re here all working together,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who joined New Haven’s force 14 years ago, stayed in regular contact not just with Miller but with people at the housing authority. They made a list of people who weren’t to be allowed on the premises. Johnson checked on the three doors through which visitors can get into Ruoppolo: the front door, a back door, and most problematically, a laundry-room door. Two of the doors are in bad shape. The housing authority agreed to fix them, improve rear lighting, and create a safer handicapped-access drop-off out front in the process of undertaking a $2.5 million upgrade at the complex financed with federal stimulus dollars.

Meanwhile, Johnson got to work on the crime. His team of Fair Haven officers started finding out which apartments were the alleged sites of drug-dealing and prostitution. They found out which people were slipping in and causing trouble. They made some trespassing arrests.

They also got to know tenants. They encouraged them not to let troublemakers onto the premises and to share information.

Next they called in the police department’s narcotics unit.

“Herbie has his contacts in the community. They gave information to me. I also had a few complaints on it. I met with Herbie. His guys did a lot of the leg work and turned it over to us,” said the unit’s chief, Lt. Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman said his unit was able to obtain arrest and search warrants and make major busts in February at both Ruoppolo and nearby properties on Ferry and Poplar streets.

“Things got better. We’ve got less traffic in here now,” reported Wilbert Peterson, who was hanging out with Adam Salters in the Ruoppolo lobby during a rainstorm Monday. “He [Johnson] has done a great job.” He and others greet Johnson with smiles and small talk about the complex, where the sergeant has become a familiar face.

The combination of the busts and the trust developed between tenants and cops has dramatically improved life at Ruoppolo, Miller agreed. “It’s still a challenge” with plenty of work remaining, including drug problems, she said. But progress continues, and she feels she has a partner in the police.

“This is how I feel about Fair Haven in general,” said Johnson, the 38-year-old son of a cop. The Fair Haven top-cop gig is a return engagement; he spent his first five years on patrol in the neighborhood before advancing to the detective division.

“There are some areas where it’s been the norm [to have flagrant crime]. They didn’t call it in anymore. We’re trying to break that,” he said. At places like Ruoppolo, his cops are working with neighbors to establish a new norm.

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

Shafiq Abdussabur
Lloyd Barrett
Maneet Bhagtana
Paul Bicki
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
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
Paul Kenney
Hilda Kilpatrick
Peter Krause
Peter Krause (2)
Amanda Leyda
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
Michael Wuchek

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posted by: Just the facts on May 25, 2011  11:11am

Outstanding work. Where is Fair on this one?

posted by: ignoranceisbliss on May 25, 2011  11:43am

The real issue is how “disability” ever got defined to include substance abuse.  The law needs to be changed. Seniors should not have to be forced to live with “disabled” drug addicts.

posted by: soundview on May 25, 2011  11:50am

Great Job Herbie!

Everyone (but the dealers) appreciates your efforts to make the streets of Fair Haven safer.  Now we see kids riding bikes instead of drug dealers’ scouts and runners… a vast improvement you can be proud of!

posted by: FAIRHAVEN-ANNE on May 25, 2011  11:56am

He is an asset to Fair Haven outstanding always there when he is called keeps on top of East pearl ST. and surrounding streets in the area we were blessed when he took over Fair Haven keep up the good work Herb.

posted by: swatty on May 25, 2011  11:56am

I was just wondering after reading all the names with stories below this one why we don’t have a city employee of the week.

Spread the love Paul!

posted by: streever on May 25, 2011  12:15pm

this is great! thanks for your work, Sergeant.

posted by: AbdelNoir on May 25, 2011  1:29pm

Actually, substance abuse is not considered a disability.  I think this part of the article is misleading.

posted by: Beansie's Mom on May 25, 2011  3:30pm

“Actually, substance abuse is not considered a disability.  I think this part of the article is misleading.” stated AbdelNoir.  Actually recovering addicts are covered under the ADA.  So that part of the article is correct and also why the city of New Haven has so many disabled housing units as well as scattered assisted living and sober houses.  New Haven has the lion’s share of housing in the region.  It’s also why there are so many non-profits in the city assist with this issue.

posted by: Chatterbug on May 25, 2011  7:03pm

Congratulations on a job well done.  Now, could you please come over to Bella Vista and get the dealers and prostitutes out of here? 

There should NEVER be drug dealers in the same housing with senior citizens.  Seniors can’t possibly deal with the anxiety of living in this environment and yet we find this segment of humanity heaped upon us as if we don’t deserve better.  That’s the very reason why so many seniors spend all their days cooped up inside their apartment afraid to come out.  Afraid of the element that lurks on the elevators, hallways, lobbies and outdoors.  This is the very reason why some of our seniors are mugged as if they even have anything to give the mugger.  But, we’re mugged and beat up by these dealers because we DON’T have what they’re looking for. 

I wish someone would enact legislation that would alleviate this nightmare.  Drug addicts and mentally unstable disabled persons should be housed with their own like persons.  Please, let’s stop this business of housing drug addicts and mentally disturbed people with seniors.  What a horrible way for senior citizens to have to live out what is left of our lives.  Certainly we deserve better!

posted by: abdelNoir on May 25, 2011  8:58pm

In 1996, the Social Security Act was amended to provide that an individual may not be eligible for SSI or SSD benefits if drug addiction or alcoholism (DA&A) is material to the disability determination. DA&A is “material” if the individual would not be deemed disabled if the use of drugs or alcohol were to stop. Because of the automatic link in most states between SSI and Medicaid, the loss of SSI benefits due to the DA&A benefits elimination necessarily means the elimination of health coverage for the affected individuals. In addition, loss of SSD benefits means the loss of Medicare coverage. The new provisions went into effect as of March 29, 1996, for new applicants.

posted by: DKR on May 25, 2011  11:26pm

if sgt. h. johnson says he’s going to look into something and see what can be done, means just that. and 9 times out of 10,’ll get results or at least an answer,..good job herbie….

posted by: Claudia Herrera on May 25, 2011  11:43pm

Sergeant Herby

Thank you, Great job you are doing in Fair Haven. Only few months with us and you already know a lot of the community real issues that affect in big proportions the quality of life in this neighborhood.

posted by: Chatterbug on May 26, 2011  12:44am

abdelNoir, could you please explain to me how what you said justifies housing DA&A and mentally challenged individuals in a complex described as “Senior Citizen housing.” 

Bella Vista is currently planning on building two more towers.  They’ve approached New Haven officials describing the “dire need for more senior housing because seniors are living longer.”  However, currently they are bringing in more DA&A and mentally challenged individuals than senior citizens, yet this plan will go through because nothing stops them from accepting DA&A and mentally challenged individuals and that’s one way of making sure that the complex is at full capacity, contrary to what they’re describing their need for building to be.

I still can’t understand how anyone would expect this to be an appropriate grouping of individuals when seniors are put in harms way just because DA&A and mentally challenged are under the umbrella of SSD or SSI.  Unless there is something that I’m not understanding.  Drug dealers, pedophiles, felons, and the mentally ill should not be living with senior citizens.  In addition, 30 yr old DA&A individuals living with senior citizens is a bad combination.  I don’t know how else to make my point.  I just wish some legislator out there would take note and make a change.  If seniors actually are living longer, this is even more unfair that we live for, maybe 20 or so years surrounded by the danger that drug dealing brings.

posted by: AbdelNoir on May 26, 2011  12:18pm

@Chatterbug- It doesn’t.  There is obviously real reason for concern. I was only pointing out that the article was incorrect.

posted by: bob solomon on May 26, 2011  1:56pm

Chatterbug -

Years ago, congress passes legislature providing that disabled people would be eligible to apply for federally subsidized housing.  The law was heavily lobbied by disability advocates.  Disability includes mental disability.  You are correct that the populations did not mesh well and the inevitable problems arose.  When this became evident, congress amended the legislation to allow public housing authorities to designate “elderly only” sites.  HANH did this for four sites, but there was intense lobbying on both sides.  Since the number of elderly/disabled housing units does not increase dramatically, the elderly advocates urge more elderly-only designation and the disabled advocates fight every designation.

posted by: bob solomon on May 26, 2011  2:17pm

Sorry - first sentence should read “federally subsidized “ELDERLY” housing.

posted by: The Connection on May 26, 2011  4:08pm

The quotes from Karla Miller do not reflect the opinion of The Connection. The Housing Authority works very diligently to address issues that arise and only because of their support and resources are we able to provide these much needed support services at Ruoppolo Manor. The successes that have been made at Ruoppolo are a result of partnerships between the Housing Authority, the New Haven Police Department, the staff of The Connection and residents of Ruoppolo working together to ensure that the community is a safe, healthy and caring place for the residents and neighbors of the building. The Connection was thrilled to provide Sergeant Johnson with the Consumer Advocate Award for his work on behalf of the police department in the Fair Haven area, and specifically Ruoppolo Manor. It is only together that we are able to better serve our communities.

posted by: Jessica Burroughs on May 26, 2011  7:08pm

Sent: May 26, 2011 7:01 pm
I thought you should know that Karla Miller whose intent was to support the elderly residents of Ruoppolo via this article and all of her efforts was FIRED by The Connection Inc due to this article as they feel she insulted their funding agency.  I find this outrageous!!! Was that legal?  Why would they fire her for engaging the police department to improve the lives of the resident where she is the Director of the program?


Hope you look into this…I am!!!

posted by: Ex-NHPD on May 27, 2011  12:21am

Nice going Sarge.  Weeding and seeding in Fair Haven.

Keep up the good work!

posted by: streever on May 27, 2011  8:27am

@The Connection:
What—exactly—was so offensive about her comments?

Her comments stated there were problems, and as your employee, she got the police involved and resolved the problems.

For his work, the officer she brought in is being honored by the press and agencies.

Why is Karla Miller being dismissed?

posted by: annoymous on May 30, 2011  11:04am

I live in Ruoppolo.  The HANH had a planned power outage on Wednesday that they didn’t inform any of us about.  I was in my shower when the whole building lost power.  On Saturday there was human crap on the floor and the wall.
This article didn’t mention what housing authority isn’t doing.  Half the building is under construction and none of it has been completed on time.
Why does the police man get honored and the woman get fired?
She could have said what is actually going on here.

posted by: m drummer on May 31, 2011  4:32am

i would like to Say karla miller was my case worker .but she was more then just a case worker or a director. shes advocate for the downtrodden.shes been there for us. and iam personally am angry at housing authority and the connection for the firing of this great woman.  all she did was tell the truth and exsposed the conditions of the building.but because the connection inc cared more about funding and saving with the housing authority this question is for the connection how can you honestly say you care about the people. when you fire some one who have a heart for people.again iam very disipointed in the connection inc thank you

posted by: L Moore on May 31, 2011  8:33pm

The Connection:  What are you going to do when you appoint a new program director and he/she works with the police, etc to help us Ruoppolo residents?
Fire that person?
Is your image and funding all that important?
And Housing Authority, you should be ashamed of yourself!!