New Haven’s interim police chief nearly became a priest

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NEW HAVEN - Interim New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said he and his officers should always be approachable, which was not a term often used to describe now former Chief Dean Esserman, who resigned Tuesday.

From the officers to members of the community, Esserman was described one way.

"I have community meetings and I would say 'give me one word that you would use to describe Chief Esserman' and they would say, nine times out of ten, it was arrogant," said Barbara Fair, a longtime community activist.

Esserman displayed disregard for others on at least a three occasions, in less than two years, with angry public outbursts, including one at a popular New Haven eatery several months ago, ultimately leading to his resignation.

"If they (police) have a different view than him, he basically belittles their conversation," said Miguel Pittman, a local restaurateur, who was named to Mayor Toni Harp's Community Relations Police Task Force about a year and a half ago.

That feeling is a far cry from the one Campbell leaves with the police officers and the public.

"He's just a beautiful, compassionate, open person," said Fair, who added that Campbell is "thoughtful, listens to people."

With that description, it's easy to understand how Campbell, who earned two degrees from the Yale School of Divinity, had designs on becoming a Jesuit priest. Instead, he became a patrolman 19 years ago.

"I think I have a good working relationship with the union and, I think, what's really important, is I have relationships with this community," Campbell said.

While Harp often credited Esserman with drastically reducing crime and re-energizing New Haven's community policing efforts, Campbell wants officers more engaged with the community and businesses. He believes he's the man to implement the plan.

"In many instances, there has been an 'us-versus-them' mentality," said Campbell, of the relationship between the police and the public. "I believe that I, as an African-American male, can help bridge that gap."

Among his goals:

  • Hire additional officers (currently at approx.450, budgeted for 494)
  • Hire officers, who reflect New Haven's population
  • Increase the department's transparency, in part, through every officer wearing body cameras
  • Boost morale within the department (some new police cruisers will be delivered by the end of September)
  • Move some NHPD supervisory positions out to the streets, to support officers

It is expected Harp will decide within the next two months whether to remove Campbell's interim tag or to hire someone else.

Pittman, who owns Sandra's Next Generation Restaurant at 636 Congress Avenue, said he predicted about a year and a half ago that Campbell would eventually become Chief.

"Esserman sped up the process due to his personality," he said.