A former top New Haven cop who watched “politics” “corrupt” the police department a decade ago warns that those conditions may be returning, based on three new controversies.
John Velleca issued that warning Thursday during an appearance on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
He cited three new developments as the basis for his concern:
• The denial of a promotion to a respected internal affairs investigator who had scored near the top of a promotional exam.
• A state human rights agency staff investigator’s finding that officials bowed to pressure from an East Shore alder to reassign a Latino district manager with an unblemished record.
• A move by the Board of Alders to assume control of some day-to-day decisions at the police department.
Velleca, a retired assistant police chief who also served as a stint as acting chief, said this reminds him of the environment at 1 Union Ave. in the early-to-mid-2000s, when political pressure from both inside and outside the department led to decisions that weren’t based on merit or public safety. He argued that “rampant politics” back then set the stage for a federal raid of New Haven narcotics officers who were on the take. Velleca was tasked with rebuilding the narcotics and intelligence unit following that federal investigation.
“Why did we even need the reform era?” asked Velleca, WNHH’s resident policing expert. “Because the political era got so out of control with picking whoever they wanted. What happened? Rampant corruption. We’re pushing right back to the political era.”
Skipping The List
Velleca said he saw internal department politics at play in the decision by Chief Anthony Campbell to skip over Sgt. Rose Dell for promotion this Friday night to lieutenant. Dell scored number three out of more than 30 people who passed the civil service test for the position; 13 lieutenants, 11 of whom scored below here, have been approved for promotion.
“I would have promoted her,” said Velleca, who said he respected Dell’s work over the years.
Dell’s attorney, former police Commissioner Jonathan Einhorn, charged that the denial of the promotion stemmed from retaliation from cops who dislike her because she has diligently investigated internal affairs cases.
Chief Campbell told the Independent that he made the decision because Dell is currently the subject of an internal investigation. Campbell, who just became chief, said he was following his predecessors’ practice of not promoting people who have pending internal investigations against them.
A colleague initially accused Dell of having given a video of a dirt biker rider’s near-fatal collision to the Independent. That proved untrue. But still under investigation is an allegation that Dell, who works on the accident reconstruction team, took a colleague’s cell phone that contained the video and forwarded the video to herself instead of following proper procedure for handling evidence.
In the WNHH interview, Velleca said past practice has worked both ways: sometimes candidates under investigation have been promoted, sometimes not.
In any case, he said, under the worst-case scenario, the alleged violation Dell is being investigated for would never conceivably prevent her promotion, even if proven true. It would merit discipline, but that’s all, he said.
He contrasted her case to that of other cops who were promoted to top spots after, for instance, being found by internal affairs to have lied under oath about having abused a citizen’s rights (including slapping a cellphone camera out of his hand) in a Wal-Mart parking dispute after a history of troubling disciplinary incidents. (Read about that here.)
The list of promotions for Friday night’s ceremonies includes a cop who seized the camera of a news reporter in violation of department policy and a court consent decree after ordering his arrest (on charges a judge ultimately dismissed); and another officer who’s currently the subject of a federal lawsuit claiming that he unfairly arrested a man and seized his phone after the man videorecorded him.
Velleca said that given successful lawsuits over promotions, officials need to be careful when deviating from the order of results on a civil service test list. He argued that a pending internal affairs investigation should stop a promotion only if the offense being investigated would conceivably prevent a promotion if proved true. And if the officer involved has a “track record” as a “bad actor.”
Campbell also faced potential backlash within the department if he had promoted Dell under these circumstances, in part because of factional likes and dislikes, in part because he and Dell, fellow Yale alums, are personal friends.
Velleca rejected allowing that to be a consideration in promotional decisions.
“If you’re going to start worrying what people will” say, bad decisions will follow, argued Velleca, who publicly supported Campbell’s appointment as chief and continues to praise his integrity and ability. “This is a tough job. You’re not going to make everyone happy.”
Who Picks Neighborhood Top Cops
Chief Campbell made an east side politician, Morris Cove Alder and State Rep. Al Paolillo Jr., happy. That may be presenting a new problem, and a potential lawsuit, for the department.
That lawsuit could come from former top East Shore cop Wilfredo Cruz. Cruz complained to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) that department brass reassigned him from his district manager post because Paolillo complained that he didn’t want a Hispanic in the post.
A draft finding issued by a CHRO investigator found that allegation to be true. The investigator’s report quoted two assistant chiefs verifying that the decision happened that way, for that reason. (Read a full story about that here.) Such decisions, if upheld in a final version, have served as the basis for subsequent discrimination lawsuits.
However, Campbell — who made the reassignment decision as interim chief at the time — told the CHRO a different story. He said Paolillo and race had nothing to do with it. He said complaints from citizens about poor performance led to the decision. The CHRO investigator found that no record exists of complaints or poor performance, that in fact Cruz had compiled a good record. Campbell had also publicly defended Paolillo as not being racist; in turn, Paolillo, who has been the leading critic of the police department and the previous police chief on the Board of Alders, enthusiastically supported Campbell’s permanent appointment as chief.
In the WNHH interview, Velleca said the issue isn’t whether or not Paolillo is a racist. “I don’t think Al Paolillo is a racist,” he said.
Rather, he said, the issue is how department brass makes decisions about which district managers to assign where — and whether politics plays too much of a role.
The CHRO report noted that Paolillo refused to return phone calls and emails from Cruz seeking a sit-down to address complaints.
Velleca said that reflects a confidence among politicians that they can straight to the top of the department to have their wishes heeded without having to work with district managers.
“A culture has been established where [connected] people in every district believe they get to ‘pick their own’” top cops, Velleca said. “It’s a matter of the alder believes he can go right to the chief of police, and they get their pick. I understand you should be able to come to the chief of police and express what your problems are. But when you get to pick your people as the alder in the area,” that politicizes the process and eventually leads to “rampant corruption.”
Similar conversations are now taking place about whether, say, black cops should be picked to run the Newhallville and Dixwell districts.
Velleca argued that while it’s important to give all citizens a chance to express their views on the matter, it’s important that chiefs resist political pressure or pick district managers based on their races. The decision should be made based on qualifications, he said.
Pressed on whether cops’ cultural backgrounds or other connections to a neighborhood should ever be taken into consideration, Velleca argued that Fair Haven should have a top cop and some officers who speak Spanish because members of the large immigrant population in the neighborhood need to have people with whom to communicate complaints and concerns.
Velleca also raised concerns about new rules the Board of Alders passed as part of the new city budget concerning oversight of the police department.
The rules — vetoed by the mayor, whose veto was then unanimously overridden — require police officials to gain Board of Alders approval before they:
• spend money on salary increases for assistant chiefs (until a new police union contract is settled).
• spend on new lieutenant salaries or reassigning sergeants, until a deployment plan for supervisors and patrol officers is presented and discussed with alders.
• spending on overtime over $1 million.
• determine who’s in charge of the department when the chief leaves town.
The alders, led by Paolillo, argued that the changes were necessary because of years of overtime overspending; because the police department has failed to communicate well enough with alders; and because Campbell, when he was interim chief, had to miss at an alder committee meeting dealing with police issues.
Mayor Toni Harp argued that the alders overreached with the new measures, saying that the executive branch and police brass need to be responsible for day-to-day management. In this opinion article, Harp argued that the changes pub public safety at risk, an allegation the alders dispute.
Velleca sided with Harp, arguing that the changes inject politics into decisions that need to be free from politics.
“Who [on the Board of Alders] has the level of expertise to say how that department should run day to day? No one,” he said.
Velleca argued that the alders should tackle broader policy issues. For instance, he argued, they should tackle the question of whether the city can afford to carry out its “community policing” strategy without running up overtime bills
“Overtime is out of control. I get it,” he said. “But we have to look to our community and see the level of service they need. The level of service that we’ve established here in New Haven is expensive. If you want walking beats, it’s expensive. It’s overtime driven. Now if you don’t want that because you want to save the overtime, we have to scale back the overtime. We can’t do it all.”
Click on or download the above audio file to listen to the full interview with John Velleca and WNHH station maanger Harry Droz on “Dateline New Haven.”