Brewing citywide frustration over the continual shuffling of top neighborhood cops boiled over in Fair Haven, where elected officials from throughout New Haven joined Fair Haven neighbors in blasting the latest reassignment of a district manager as an example of how “revolving-door policing” is replacing “community policing.”
The occasion was the monthly Fair Haven community management team meeting at the Blatchley Avenue substation. Management teams serve as the bedrock of the city’s 28-year-old community policing program, where neighbors interact and develop close working relationships with their assigned top cop.
The original purpose of Thursday night’s meeting was to bid a bittersweet farewell to Lt. David Zannelli —Fair Haven’s sixth district manager in seven years — and welcome his successor, ex-Downtown top cop Lt. Mark O’Neill. Department brass has reassigned Zannelli, who has made great strides in the neighborhood in 15 months and overseen celebrated police work, to head the internal affairs division.
Even as they embraced O’Neill, the room expressed a long-simmering pent-up anger at lack of consultation on the changing in district managers, and asked whether a high turnover jeopardizes progress. From Westville to Dixwell to Newhallville, neighbors throughout town have been watching district managers come and go.
The Fair Haven crowd also cited failures in communication, which residents fear, are turning NHPD practices into what one 40-year resident dubbed “revolving-door policing ... not community policing.”
Department Chief of Patrol Lt. Herb Sharp got that earful at the meeting and promised to convey the concerns to brass at 1 Union Ave.
The small community room at the Blatchley Avenue police substation was packed not only with residents but also Fair Haven and Wooster Square alders, leaders of the Board of Alders, and State Reps. Roland Lemar, Juan Candelaria, and Al Paollilo. Former mayoral candidate Justin Elicker showed up, too. The crowd numbered more than 50 people.
All that leadership was there to hail with warm words and cupcakes the achievements of Zannelli and welcome 19-year veteran O’Neill.
The legislative brass was also present because they expected either Chief Campbell or Assistant Chief Otoniel Reyes to be in attendance. They expected the chiefs to answer growing citywide concerns about the changing of district managers after short tenures, often without consultation with the local alders and teams, and the effect of all that on community policing. The two chiefs had prior engagements already, so they sent the next in command of patrol, Lt. Herb Sharp.
Another 15-Month Gig?
When a wave of recent retirements, a shortage of new officers, and a reconfiguration of the department recently resulted in a shuffling of the deck at police headquarters , including the promotion of Zannelli to head Internal Affairs, Fair Haveners protested.
Zannelli had communicated well with the management team, gotten to know local businesses, mentored new officers, and the lowering crime statistics showed it.
This yanking of a district leader just when dividends are paying off has become a pattern. This time Fair Haveners, like Peter Finch’s character in Network, decided they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.
On Sept. 19 the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association wrote to Mayor Toni Harp asking that the decision to reassign Zannelli be reversed and that he allow to remain Fair Haven’s district manager.
“Why did no one from NHPD Central Office reach out before the decision was made?” wrote Chatham Square activist Lee Cruz and the other signers.
“Why does a city that boasts of its nationally recognized community policing program fail to include the community in such a monumental decision?” they wrote.
Cruz said has received no response to the letter.
Then on Sept. 24, Fair Haven Community Management Team Co-Chair David Steinhardt and other officers and members of the team wrote to Mayor Harp urging Campbell and Reyes to be present at Thursday night’s meeting, on the occasion of Zannelli’s departure and the introduction of O’Neill, to discuss these issues.
A dozen alders citywide —many of whom are having problems with the short tenure and uncertainty of district manager assignments —were copied on the letter. They said they expected the chiefs to be there to hear their complaints and suggestions.
After tributes to Zannelli and a warm welcome to O’Neill, who has family roots in Fair Haven Heights, Lt. Sharp said the chiefs were unable to come, but they would in the near future. In the meantime, he concurred with the main beef he was hearing — that consistency in leadership in the district is crucial.
The shuffles have occurred because of manpower shortages, he said. Once those shortages are addressed, consistency will return, he promised. He also said he would convey the concerns to the chiefs and answer questions as best he could.
Fair Haven School teacher David Weinreb’s respectful yet skeptical remark, among the first Sharp fielded, caught the tenor of the evening: “I know that Lt. O’Neill is eligible to retire in 15 months,” Weinreb noted. Zannelli’s tenure also had been about 15 months. “It feels hard when you see a pattern. I believe that you [O’Neill] care, but actions need to show it.”
“In seven years we’ve gone through six [district managers]. That to me is not community policing. That’s revolving door policing,” said longtime activist Mary Ann Moran
“We need to have an ongoing conversation with the chiefs about this, ” said Sally Esposito, also a stalwart management team member.
“The chiefs will be here for you,” said Sharp.
“We were told,” said the management team co-chair Steinhardt,, “that he [Zannelli] would be here for three years.”
“I’m livid,” said Fair Haven Alder Jose Crespo. “Where’s the open door? I didn’t get a call from any chief, from anyone. I’m the elected representative here. You waited until the last minute. That’s B.S.”
Respectfully, Crespo asked how he could have trust at this point.
Alders Richard Furlow of West Hills/Amity/BeaverHills and David Reyes of the Hill, two leaders of the board, then spoke up. Reyes called the chief’s absence from the gathering an expresssion of disrespect.
Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg said that he also had a major reassignment in his area without his hearing about it: “This is a citywide issue.”
“There have been big changes in five districts,” Sharp responded, “due to retirements. I’m not going to speak for the chief. He will. But I’m here with an open heart, and we are going to get back to community policing.” Uncertainty about the fate of health and pension benefits in the next union contract have helped propel a wave of retirements, in addition to job offers from higher-paying suburban districts.
Fair Haven Alder Kenneth Reviez said that Fair Haven is an epicenter of all kinds of problems. Zannelli has led the way through communication and bringing people together to seriously lowering crime stats, Reviez said. But quality-of-life issues remain huge challenges. “We’re at a point where we can turn around the quality of life issues here. Let’s not lose it,” he urged.
“We created four assistant chiefs,” State Rep. Paolillo, who as an alder took a lead in addressing policing issues, told Sharp, “in part so they could be out in the community. When a [management] team requests the presence of the chief, it’s the people [speaking]. When it’s radio silence, that’s serious. Last year, when promotions were made there was a promise of consistency of three years. You are a go-between” he concluded.
“I’ll pass it on,” said Sharp.
And so the evening went, with more appreciation for Zannelli, high hopes for O’Neill, and suggestions that perhaps sergeants again serve as district managers to ease some of the manpower issues. (The policy now is to assign lieutenants, whose ranks are stretched thin.)
Throughout it all was a profound skepticism and unease that Fair Haven, which has seen huge strides, is not getting its fair shake, and “community” in community policing is being taken for granted.
Steinhardt reminded Sharp that the management team in effect is a kind of mentor to each new district manager and that in the past had been involved in selection, but no longer. He called that an especially harmful oversight at this time in the neighborhood’s life.
“I’ll pass all your concerns to the chief and the assistant chief,” Sharp reiterated.
Then cupcakes with white frosting and a dash of sprinkles were brought out to be served up in honor of Zannelli and O’Neill, at the meeting’s end.
Campbell: “Domino Effect”
In a conversation Friday, Chief Campbell said he sympathizes with the crowd’s frustration. He shares it.
Until the city pays its officers more, it will continue, in the short term, to lose them, and department brass will have to fill gaps that keep opening, Campbell said.
When one or several high-ranking cops move, that creates a “domino effect,” Campbell observed.
Take the recent shuffle, for instance: Westville’s district manager, Elisa Tuozzoli, retired. So did a lieutenant running the records division, Darci Siclari. Lt. Renee Dominguez, who’d been running various districts over six years, put in for a change to a different kind of assignment after returning from a maternity leave. The top internal affairs spot opened up when Lt. Rose Dell was sent to run Westville’s district. Meanwhile, Dixwell’s top cop was arrested and put on leave after a domestic violence incident.
“Zannelli has done a phenomenal job in District 8. He formed great relationships. But with all the retirements and changes, I had to shuffle the department around,” Campbell said.
“The sad thing is this: There are going to be more changes. Come the end of this year, I’ve got lieutenants who can leave who are district managers. Until the department can stabilize with a contract, the more people that leave, it creates a domino effect.
“If we don’t create long-term incentives, these broken relationships are just going to continue. It doesn’t matter who the chief is. We have to address the elephant in the room: The cops don’t get paid enough. There’s not incentive enough for them to stay. So we shuffle and we do the best we can.”
Campbell said he “takes to heart” the community’s frustration about not just the shuffling around, but a lack of communication about some of the recent changes. He couldn’t attend Thursday night’s meeting because he had a previously scheduled engagement involving the Anti-Defamation League; he said he needed to be there to explain how the department was responding to some anti-Semitic incidents.
Next time, “I will definitely come in person” to explain leadership changes to the neighborhood and in general “communicate better” with all districts so neighbors can hear “directly from me,” Campbell said.
“I totally understand the community’s frustration: ‘I just formed a relationship with this person, and now they’re going. It’s like a break-up. Things are going well, and now you’re saying you’re not seeing me anymore.’”
Assistant Chief Reyes said he makes it a point to attend community meetings like Thursday night’s. He said he sent advance word about his inability to attend this one, and discussed the matter with officials who were planning to show up.
“We understand that change is difficult for our community,” Reyes said Friday. He said brass makes a point of notifying neighbors well in advance of changes in district managers, and affords management teams time to meet the new bosses before they move in.