The Rookies Catch On

Paul Bass PhotoMichael, a wanted man carrying a loaded stolen gun, got to meet six of his new Dwight neighbors at once, in a back alley. Unfortunately for him, they were six rookie cops.

The rookies were looking for him. He had on a hoodie that concealed much of his face. But one of rookies, Caitlin Zerella, could see his arched eyebrows.

Zerella and her fellow rookies learning the job together in the Dwight neighborhood had been shown Michael’s pictures. She had committed his eyebrows to memory.

Rookie cops are on patrol throughout New Haven neighborhoods like Dwight, as a new generation remakes the force. The city has hired 71 new cops in the past two years and plans to bring on another 60-90 recruits in 2014. That means a lot of new faces on the street, a lot of young people learning the trade.

With the help of seasoned officers and a boss who himself is a “rookie” district manager, the six gung-ho Dwight rookies, who walk the evening beat in three pairs, have chalked up firsts in recent weeks, making their first major stolen-gun arrests.

Zerella and her partner Derek Huelsman made their arrest by keeping a sharp eye out, and reacting fast.

They had just returned to Dwight from an 8 p.m. “lunch” stop at Gourmet Heaven. They were driving down Kensington Street. Carlos Conceicao, was behind the wheel. A veteran officer often turned to as a mentor, Conceicao has been spending time on special quality-of-life assignments with the Dwight rookies to show them the ropes.

“That’s Michael!” exclaimed Zerella, who was riding in the front passenger seat. The man’s photo had appeared among those of wanted criminals distributed to officers. Convicted last fall for felony robbery, he had stopped checking in with parole and was believed to be involved in the neighborhood’s current crime scene.

Michael pulled his hoodie over his face and walked away. Huelsman bolted from the back seat after him. Michael ran toward Elm, turned right, then right again down Garden. Huelsman stayed close behind; Zerella followed another 10-15 feet back while radioing updates on the chase.

Flinging an object as he ran, Michael led Huelsman into the darkness between two houses.

“He hit the fence,” Huelsman recalled. “He couldn’t get over it. He kind of bounced off.”

Huelsman grabbed Michael’s waist, flung him to the side. Zerella came on the scene, and the officers handcuffed him. A host of other Dwight officers arrived, too, including the other four rookies. Through scenes like this one, as well as down time together, the six have bonded since the last two of them joined the team last fall.

They found the object Michael had discarded—a loaded .45 Glock. It turned out to be stolen. They also found about 15 packages of crack on him.

Huelsman and Zerella had never before arrested someone with that many bags on him. They hadn’t taken a stolen gun off the street before. They were excited by the arrest. It would turn out to be a memorable week: Days later, working an extra-duty shift, Zerella arrested a fugitive wanted for a two-year-old double-murder in Puerto Rico; he’d been hiding in New Haven in plain sight.

“A Team”

Meanwhile, the other rookies made similar “firsts.” David Diaz made his on upper Chapel Street. Diaz is a 27-year-old former finance company “cubicle worker” who gravitated to police work in search of more fulfilling work; his rookie partner Derek Werner (who’s 40) has started a second career, too, after retiring form the Marines. On this evening, Diaz questioned a woman who appeared not to belong outside an apartment building with a standing no-trespassing order and recurrent drug traffic. He noticed another man in an alley who seemed to be up to no good; Diaz recognized him as a neighborhood troublemaker who doesn’t live at the building. He stopped to question him. The man, who is 34, reached into his pocket. Diaz asked what he had in there. “A flashlight,” the man responded. It turned out to be a ViperTek stun gun, for which the man was arrested. Police believe the weapon may match the one used not long before in a nearby robbery and attack on a Southern Connecticut State University nursing student.

Rookie Officers Nicholas Katz and Paul Mandel made their arrest after almost getting into a car crash. They were driving down Chapel around 9 p.m., entering the Orchard Street intersection. A man driving a Nissan Pathfinder ran the light “and almost hit us,” said Katz, who was behind the wheel. They stopped the man, questioned him outside the car. They noticed bags of crack inside the car. They searched the car further, and found a stolen Colt .38 under the seat. It turned out the man has been in and out of jail since 2008 on various felony weapons and drug-dealing charges.  Now he sits in jail facing six new felony charges, not to mention a charge for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

This week Huelsman and Zerella grabbed another gun. At around 6 p.m. Sunday, they staked out the driver of a Toyoyta stopped in a George Street parking lot. They pulled over the driver when he took off but forgot to turn on his lights. He had a bag of marijuana on him; the officers found a safe in the car, which, when opened, revealed a semi-automatic pistol and little Zip-local narcotics-packaging bags inside. The driver, a felon, didn’t have a permit for the gun.

“Everyone’s a go-getter. Everyone seems to be getting it,” said the Dwight rookies’ boss, top neighborhood cop Sgt. Stephan Torquati (pictured above at right conferring with top Edgewood cop Lt. Makiem Miller at this week’s CompStat data-sharing meeting at 1 Union Ave.).

Torquati considers himself a rookie, too. He’s been on the force 12 years. But he just became a sergeant last February. And he took over the Dwight district (“D-4”) in June. He walked his first beat in Dwight, under its legendary longtime manager, Ray Hassett. Hasett’s young charges looked up to him, developed a deep personally loyalty to him. Torquati remembered how Hassett would, like a sports coach, scout promising recruits and lobby to get them on his team. Torquati inherited four of his six rookies; he actively recruited Huelsman and Zerella. All six did their training in Dwight.

A number of district managers lobby for recruits, according to Lt. Julie Johnson, deputy patrol commander. She said two districts have even more rookies than Torquati’s: Fair Haven and the East Shore each have eight.

Sgt. Vincent Anastasio, who heads the East Shore district, said he has done what Torquati has: assigned veteran cops (in his case, Sgt. Marco Francia) to patrol with the rookies and mentor them.

Torquati said the six rookies gell, have a similar proactive, enthusiastic approach to the job, while also complementing each other’s talents. “The goal,” he said, “is to have a strong team, and to have all six become sergeants or detectives.” At which point the new rookies come in.

“We’ve got a team here. We all like each other,” said Werner.

For the six rookies, the recent high-profile arrests are only part of the bonding and learning process. Some memorable calls don’t involve arrests, or crimes but are still part of that process. Like the one on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving On The Beat

It happened as the newbies, five of them, landed on the holiday B shift.

Werner (pictured above on right with partner Diaz) was accustomed to holidays away from home; his Marine duties took him to Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, and Iraq, where he participated in the 2003 invasion and returned for another tour of duty from 2005-6.

The Dwight neighborhood was a far quieter place on Thanksgiving evening. But someone did need help: A woman who was worried about her mom. She hadn’t heard from her mother for two days.

Werner and four of his fellow rookies went to the mother’s door in a large apartment building in the neighborhood. They knocked on the door.

No answer. They could hear the TV playing.

Werner called the mother’s cell phone number, which the daughter had provided.

The building manager let the officers in. They entered.

“She was on the floor,” Katz recalled. She had had a stroke.

They called EMTs, who came in time to save her life.

“I was afraid for her. I was afraid for her daughter,” Werner recalled. “I was just glad we could get her help.”


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

Shafiq Abdussabur
Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
James Baker
Lloyd Barrett
Manmeet Bhagtana (Colon)
Paul Bicki
Paul Bicki (2)
Sheree Biros
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Anthony Campbell
Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
Sydney Collier
Carlos Conceicao
Carlos Conceicao (2)
Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
David Coppola
Roy Davis
Joe Dease
Milton DeJesus
Milton DeJesus (2)
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Robert DuPont
Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
Jose Escobar Sr.
Bertram Ettienne
Bertram Ettienne (2)
Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
Marco Francia
Michael Fumiatti
William Gargone
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Derek Gartner
Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robert Hayden
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
Racheal Inconiglios
Juan Ingles
Paul Kenney
Hilda Kilpatrick
Herb Johnson
John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
Jillian Knox
Peter Krause
Peter Krause (2)
Amanda Leyda
Rob Levy
Anthony Maio
Dana Martin
Steve McMorris
Juan Monzon
Chris Perrone
Ron Perry
Joe Pettola
Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
Ryan Przybylski
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
David Rivera
Luis & David Rivera
Luis Rivera (2)
Salvador Rodriguez
Salvador Rodriguez (2)
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Betsy Segui & Manmeet Colon
Allen Smith
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
David Totino
Stephan Torquati
Gene Trotman Jr.
Kelly Turner
Lars Vallin (& Xander)
Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
Earl Reed
John Velleca
Manuella Vensel
Holly Wasilewski
Holly Wasilewski (2)
Alan Wenk
Stephanija VanWilgen
Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
Matt Williams
Michael Wuchek
Michael Wuchek (2)
David Zannelli
Cailtin Zerella
David Zaweski

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