HARTFORD — — Police Chief James Rovella is cracking down on the department's little-known but longtime practice of maintaining under-the-radar "offices" inside local storefronts.
Rovella sent a memo to the deputy and assistant police chiefs on Aug. 16 asking them to provide a list of all such offices throughout the city.
The practice of police partnering with local business owners and landlords has been seen as beneficial for both sides — the police presence means crime deterrence for landlords, while a quiet room inside a local establishment can provide a welcome respite for officers.
But these makeshift offices, which have been a hallmark of community policing in Hartford for at least 20 years, aren't regulated, and it's not always clear how they're being used.
"We don't want to give the appearance of impropriety," Rovella said. "There's zero tolerance for drinking or sleeping [on the job]. How the community perceives us is important."
Rovella said he has not received any formal complaints about the offices, but he also wasn't aware of them until recently.
"It's no excuse not to have a process," he said. "It's one of those rocks I'm going to have to turn over in my administration."
In his memo, Rovella asked the chiefs to "detail who has access and by what means (i.e. keys, codes, etc.) ... What agreements do we have with the owner of the location. This is all info I want the [administrative sergeant] to be aware of and monitor."
Rovella has begun to compile a list of office locations in the city's north, south and central areas. It is unclear how many there are, he said, but "they are all over the place." Once he has a better idea of where they are, Rovella said he will shut down those that aren't strategically located or properly used.
Locations that had been used include spaces at 90 Bartholomew Ave., 30 Arbor St., 207 Main St. and a storefront on Wethersfield Avenue, sources told The Courant. Rovella said he has so far ordered at least one — on Bartholomew Avenue — closed.
"You may see a lot of them closing very soon," he said.
The offices that remain open will go through a formal process — the city council must approve space donated to the police department — and will be "loosely supervised" by administrative sergeants, Rovella said, so officers can maintain their independence.
"The key to this whole policing concept is supervision — what are the hours of operation, who has the keys or access cards," he said. "They don't need to be closely supervised, but they need structure so no possible abuse can occur."
A cost/benefit analysis will be done and memorandums of understanding will be created with the landlords at the sites that remain open, Rovella said.
"I never knew they were out there," Rovella said of the offices. "Some of my command staff never knew they were out there. They're at a much lower level."
Several police officers who spoke to The Courant on the condition of anonymity said they regularly use the offices to do paperwork, conduct surveillance, add their presence to a neighborhood or just stop in to use the bathroom.
"If you're trying to get rid of [criminal activity], you have to be there every day," one officer said.
And some city residents said they support having the officers embedded in the community.
Steve Harris, a retired firefighter and former city councilman who lives in the North End, said he liked the idea of officers having a place to go.
The practice provides a constant police presence in the neighborhoods, he said, and makes residents feel better.
"It gives cops an opportunity to forge relationships within the community," he said. But, he added, the practice should be supervised.
Larry Dooley, a managing partner of the Colt Gateway Project, said that he has provided office space to police and that it worked out well.
"Our residential and commercial tenants liked it," Dooley said. "It's definitely a model to reduce crime."
"There are advantages — the officers are visible," Rovella said. "They may interact with people, with kids. They may get a tip. They can do paperwork. But we don't want defendants being brought there."
Interviews with criminal defendants should happen at police headquarters or official substations, he said.
Mayor Pedro Segarra said that if the offices are managed properly, he supports keeping some open.
"We just can't license each and every place an officer decides he wants to use," Segarra said. "We need to make decisions about which ones are useful and necessary. The bottom line is this could potentially lend itself to some abuse. We have to control and manage these locations."
"The idea is for it not to be a getaway," Kyle Anderson, a city councilman who is chairman of the panel's public safety committee, said of the offices. "If it's something beneficial for community policing and it's supervised, I'm very supportive of it."
Use of the offices shouldn't be limited to community service officers, Rovella said. Once a formal process is in place, patrol officers, police on foot beats and others could have access to the spaces.
"The majority of them benefit the neighborhoods and begin with good intent," he said. "But we have to avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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