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The Man Who Would Be Hartford's Chief


By Jeff Cohen

August 07, 2012

James Rovella is the pick of Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra to be the city's next permanent police chief. WNPR's Jeff Cohen recently sat down with Rovella for an interview.

Rovella has been interim chief since earlier this year, the second man to run the department after Daryl Roberts left when his contract wasn't renewed.

Rovella's confirmation by the city council has faced a couple of hurdles. First, many on the council bristled at the fact that Rovella didn't participate in the city's search process for chief -- and that Mayor Segarra picked him anyway. That search cost the city $50,000. Second, Rovella told the city council at his confirmation hearing that he wouldn't take the job if he didn't have a guarantee of free retirement healthcare benefits for life for him and his family.

But the chief's position on that appears to have changed. He says he'd be willing to pay something for the benefit.

Cohen: You want that benefit to continue when you retire at no cost to you...

Rovella: Oh, no, no, no. Not necessarily. There is always a cost whether it's on the state level or on the city level. There's always a cost to the employee. It just has to be reasonable."

The maximum allowable salary for Hartford's police chief is around $156,000; Rovella already gets a $60,000 annual pension from the city. The city council is still considering Rovella's appointment. As it does, we decided to sit and have a conversation with him about his career in law enforcement. Rovella is from Hartford, his grandparents owned a grocery store on Front Street, and he served two decades as an officer and homicide detective for the Hartford Police.

I reviewed his personnel file, the city's background check, police internal affairs files, and news clips concerning Rovella. Over the course of his twenty years in the department, he was involved in various cases that wound up either in civil court or in front of a police investigator. One police investigation sustained a claim that Rovella used excessive force in 1983. He wasn't disciplined.

In another incident, Rovella and his partner shot and killed a man who was threatening a woman with a knife.

"It was Christmas Eve, 1981. Probably the only bright side of the whole night was that we got to prevent a serious injury or maybe even death to a woman that was being held at knifepoint. We eventually chased the suspect into an apartment, he barricaded himself, and while waiting for backup, he emerged with a knife. I didn't see the knife until he stabbed me twice in the right arm and leg. I fired once at the suspect, and while the suspect was on top of me, the second officer fired at the suspect and it went through and actually pierced my jacked and shirt."

"The suspect died that night. Both of our rounds would have been potentially fatal to him. We both fired once. You know, I'm particularly sensitive...you know what, that is almost my guiding light to be more of the homicide detective through my career because I'm just particularly sensitive to families. You never really forget it or you never really put it on the back burner. It's always there."

Another thing in Rovella's background report was this. In 1997, then Sgt. Daryl Roberts filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department. Roberts said he was treated differently than his subordinates by their superiors. Rovella was one of those subordinates. Roberts would later go on to be chief. With that complaint in mind, I asked Rovella about race relations within the department then and now.

"When I first came on in 1981, and we're talking particlular race relations inside the police department...I just didn't see those things. We all worked together and when the bell rang whether we liked each other or not, everybody worked together."

Now, though, race continues to be an issue for the department. Census data from 2010 shows there aren't a lot of white people living in Hartford. But its police force is two thirds white.

Rovella says he'd like to make the force more representative of the city's minority populations, but he says he faces some systemic challenges.

"What I've seen in some of the data -- we lose these officers, or potential candidates, at the testing procedure. A large volume disappears on us. And then later on in some of the background. You start at the top of the funnel, our funnel narrows very, very quickly in regards to minority candidates at the testing procedure."

Rovella says he wants to help minority candidates improve their test-taking skills and that he has spoken to the city's schools superintendent about it.

After serving in Hartford, Rovella spent more than a decade as an inspector with the state looking into, among other things, homicides. While there, he also supervised the investigation into former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez -- although he says his involvement there was only administrative.

But as someone who's worked for both the city and the state, Rovella says he's keenly aware of the kinds of cases his officers have to build to bring successful prosecutions in court. That means complete, thorough arrests and reports and extensive cooperation with prosecutors and the courts. And when it comes to drug crimes and low-level street gang activity, it also means what he says is a targeted approach to arrests. Rovella says he wants to fish with a spear, not a net.

"I don't need 100, 200 people arrested. I need five or six. And good cases against that five or six."

Rovella has focused much of his attention on shooting crimes. And those crimes are sharply down. But he says he's also got a daily eye on quality of life crimes. Drinking in public, loitering, unlicensed vendors -- those are problems across the city, especially in its parks. So much so, Rovella says, that he has to pay daily attention to them.

Some police chiefs come from outside of the city. Rovella is making the case that he is one of the city's own -- with his family connections and years of service. Now, he and his wife are looking to leave their Wethersfield home and move to the city.

"It always feels good to be in Hartford. And my wife loves it, too, so it's a natural fit."

And when he speaks of the chief's job, here's how he describes it.

"I not only have to care about the officers and the way they do their job and how we deliver resources, but the care and custody of well over 125,000 people and to be fair and honest to them at all times."

The city council has about two months to confirm Rovella.

Reprinted with permission of Jeff Cohen, author of the blog Capital Region Report. To view other stories on this topic, search Capital Region Report at http://capitalregionreport.wordpress.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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