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Chief Must Stay Close To Citizens

July 5, 2006

Here's what I don't want to see happen to Daryl Keith Roberts next week when he becomes the latest new chief of the Hartford Police Department.

The tough-minded, likable city native shouldn't be so enamored of or hamstrung by the job that he forgets to get outside and connect with the peeps. More than any other chief in the past six years - he'll be the seventh, including permanents and interims - Roberts needs to make sure that his community support is rock-solid.

Internally, some are whispering that Roberts is unpolished and not ideal for the top spot. A Courant editorial Monday, lamenting the lack of a national search, pretty much suggested the same concern.

Though Roberts had a laudable 24-year career - including stints as a detective, sergeant, commander, lieutenant, deputy chief and assistant chief - he'll be the first HPD chief since George Sicarus in the 1970s who was never a captain. Roberts is also not entirely comfortable in front of the television cameras. Some will wait for his first misstep and pounce.

"We've got some people plotting my demise as we speak," Roberts said, sipping grapefruit juice at a diner Monday. "But how you deal with that is you remain positive, focused and remember why you're here."

Roberts' greatest assets are not always uncovered in a national search: heart and desire. This street cop, who turns 48 this month, was reared by a single teenage mother on welfare. The oldest of eight boys, Roberts grew up in public housing in north and south Hartford.

A standout athlete at Bulkeley High, Roberts is a lesson in how you can achieve with discipline and diligence, even when the odds are against you. At a time when young thugs have turned the city into a shooting gallery, Roberts has the standing to look the punks in the eye and let them know a new sheriff has arrived - one who grew up in their 'hood.

"If they can see what I was able to do coming from that same background, then they can understand that they can do the same thing," Roberts said. "They can aspire to do bigger and better. They have to see some hope for the future. We need to give them positive goals and positive role models."

Roberts plans to establish stronger ties with the school system in order to identify kids who are chronically absent or in trouble, then get them and their parents help.

"We have to stop giving our children things to live down to and give them things to live up to," Roberts said. "When I was growing up, I didn't know we were dysfunctional. If my mother wasn't there, there was always a neighbor, aunt, uncle, someone to keep me in check. We talk about the village [needed to raise children]. Well, I'm a product of the village."

Roberts is also promising to be visible and accessible - two traits that worked well with former interim Chief Mark Pawlina, the popular fill-in before Patrick Harnett was hired two years ago. Pawlina, now the chief in Chatham, Mass., has known Roberts for two decades. When Pawlina was captain, Roberts was one of his lieutenants, overseeing the South End.

"He was one of the best lieutenants I ever had," Pawlina said Monday. "What made him good was his knowledge of the city, knowledge of being a street cop and his leadership. Guys respected him. He provided some very good leadership and really matured into a leadership role."

In this pressure cooker that is the HPD, Roberts finds himself as the underdog once again.

He's used to it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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