In Weare, new police chief on ‘a zero-fail mission’
In 2007, the FBI raided the New Haven Police Department.
Federal agents entered the Connecticut police station and arrested the lieutenant at the head of the city’s narcotics unit and a detective, along with three bail bondsmen, in a high-profile corruption case.
And when a new chief disbanded the narcotics unit, he tapped John Velleca, then a shift commander in the patrol division, to rebuild the squad that had embarrassed the entire agency and destroyed community trust in its work.
Yesterday, Velleca started another new job, this time as chief at the Weare Police Department. He sat in a Concord coffee shop Thursday, his thick shoulders hunched under a black Tactical Narcotics Unit (TNU) sweatshirt, less than 24 hours out from starting work at an agency he said feels like the New Haven police headquarters after that 2007 FBI raid.
“I can see a lot of it in the Weare PD right now,” said Velleca, 44. “The mistrust between officers, the tension when you walk in the door, the fear of ambiguity of the future. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where they’re going to go. It’s not easy.”
The Weare police are under investigation by the attorney general’s office for the use of deadly force during a sting operation in August, and they face a number of lawsuits in federal court. The board of selectmen recently considered a proposal to look at disbanding the police department in favor of hiring a private security firm.
Velleca’s interview persuaded them to hold off. They appointed him chief in October.
As he prepared for his first day, Velleca remembered the conversations he had with then-Chief James Lewis in New Haven in 2008, when the two of them talked about how to move forward in 2007 from a point when gang members openly threatened police officers in the street and cruisers were vandalized on raids.
“Our conversations would always end with, ‘Your job depends on it,’ ” Velleca said.
When Velleca retired in 2011, the New Haven Police Department had 440 sworn officers.
The Weare Police Department has 10.
But the job here is not so different from the job he had in Connecticut.
“It’s almost like what I’m going through here,” Velleca said.
“It’s a zero-fail mission.”
‘It was a fragile time’
Velleca and his two sisters grew up in East Haven, adjacent to New Haven. He’s a Yankees fan. He was the first person in his family to go into police work when he joined the New Haven Police Department as a patrol officer in 1992.
At the time he joined the department, New Haven was experimenting with a philosophy that has stuck with Velleca from his first days in law enforcement: community-based policing.
“Community policing is merely interacting with your community and finding ways together to solve problems to sustain civic life, to maintain the peace,” Velleca said.
His gaze was steady beneath his Texas Longhorns cap.
“It’s got to transcend your whole department,” he said. “You can’t have a community-based unit. . . . Everybody has to have the same philosophy to make it work.”
Velleca moved through the ranks of the New Haven Police Department quietly, working as a detective and then becoming a shift commander in the patrol division. In 2000, when he was a detective sergeant, a grand jury found a police captain had tampered with evidence in a homicide investigation. In the years that followed, Velleca saw fellow officers continue to chip away at the public’s trust.
“There were multiple officers arrested,” he said. “We had an officer on the midnight shift who was smoking crack cocaine in his car, robbing hookers, all kinds of different stuff. A lot of drugs. A lot of smaller, individual-type officer arrests for, you know, assaults, unlawful discharge of firearms, stuff like that.
“And then the corruption scandal hits.”
The corruption scandal hit, and Lewis put Velleca on cleanup duty. That year, homicides were lower than they had been in years, Lewis said. But he also had zero complaints to the department about Velleca or his narcotics officers.
That statistic is the one that matters to Velleca.
“That was what I used to pay attention to,” he said. “Cops are cops, and they like to keep track of arrests, seizures, and that’s all good. I want to know that, too. But from a management perspective, you want to make sure your people are doing the right thing.”
Velleca isn’t a politician, Lewis said. He’s a cop.
“He does not put up with fools easily,” Lewis said. “If he has one weakness, it’s that he expects people to do their job and do it right. . . . Often I would talk to John about the fact that not everyone could live up to the standards.”
Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, met Velleca over the course of 30 years covering the city’s law enforcement.
“It was a fragile time,” Bass said of the corruption scandal. “The FBI sting severed community trust in the department. John Velleca did bring back that trust. . . . It was different watching him than watching other rising police officers when they start dealing with sensitive matters. He decided to open the door wide open to the public.”
Velleca would describe raids, talk on the record about why certain arrests were made, even discuss the details of how some operations were done, Bass said.
“He’s one of the most open people I’ve ever met in law enforcement,” Bass said. “It paid off for him.”
In 2010, then-Assistant Chief Tom Wheeler appointed Velleca head of the Major Crimes Unit. Wheeler came into New Haven from Chicago and quickly recognized that larger unit, which had solved only two of its last 22 homicide cases, needed a leader like Velleca.
“He didn’t waver at all,” Wheeler said. “He took the responsibility. . . . We made a hell of a lot of strides.”
Velleca continued to rise to assistant chief and then acting chief of the department for four months in 2011. He and his wife welcomed their daughter Jenni in November 2011, and Velleca retired at the end of that year, shortly after current Chief Dean Esserman took over. He’s been working in risk management ever since, while also studying criminal justice at Albertus Magnus College. (Velleca does not have a college degree. He said he is about halfway through his bachelor’s degree and will transfer to another school nearby to finish.)
And now he’s in Weare.
“It’s more of a department issue with the officers, right,” Velleca said, his voice firm. “It’s a matter of talking to them and explaining to them. I don’t think anybody has really spent a lot of time explaining, ‘Here’s what you should be doing and here’s why.’ ”
Four federal lawsuits are pending against the Weare Police Department and some of its officers. Three of those suits are related. Carla Gericke, William Rodriguez and William Alleman all sued the Weare police after Gericke was arrested while videotaping a police traffic stop in 2010. Those cases have been stayed pending a decision on Gericke’s suit in district court.
In the fourth lawsuit, Weare restaurant owner George Hodgdon sued the department following a 2010 assault case that occurred near his business. Hodgdon was arrested on charges of hindering the investigation of that assault, but was later acquitted. He has since filed a lawsuit with several claims against the Weare police, including that he was unfairly arrested and the officers used excessive force against him.
That case is scheduled for jury trial in April 2014.
In addition to those lawsuits, Lt. James Carney has been on administrative leave since March while the department investigates allegations against him that include threatening members of his staff, transporting alcohol in a town vehicle and having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a town employee.
Carney has sued the town for more information about that investigation.
Most recently, a Weare police officer shot and killed a suspected heroin dealer who tried to flee during a drug sting in August. Attorney General Joe Foster is investigating whether the officers involved were justified in using deadly force against Alex Cora DeJesus, 35, of Manchester.
Two officers shot and wounded DeJesus as he speeded off in his vehicle from the undercover bust in Lanctot’s Plaza along Route 114. The attorney general’s office has not named the officers involved in that case.
A defendant, too
Velleca has been named himself as a defendant in three federal lawsuits throughout his career as a police officer.
The first is from 2001, when he was named as one of two officers in a Civil Rights Act lawsuit. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, and the court files have been sealed.
In 2011, a New Haven police officer named Carlos Roman filed the second lawsuit against Velleca, then-Chief Frank Limon and the city of New Haven, alleging discrimination, harassment and disparate treatment. According to court documents, Roman claimed Velleca discriminated against him and threatened him when he voiced concerns about decisions Velleca had made to transfer some detectives. His suit also claimed Velleca had a history of discriminatory conduct toward other minority and female officers, and Roman alleged Velleca was biased against him because he is Hispanic.
A federal judge dismissed that case in 2012 for a lack of factual evidence.
In 2013, a second New Haven officer, Francis Melendez sued Velleca and the city of New Haven on similar grounds. In his lawsuit, Melendez cites a 2011 incident in which Velleca disciplined him for the way he handled a piece of evidence near the scene of a homicide investigation. Velleca then transferred the officer, who alleged he has been disciplined, transferred and harassed because he is Hispanic, according to court documents.
Court documents also show Melendez has alleged Velleca “has a very long history of discrimination against and hostility towards persons based on ethnicity, heritage and gender.”
That case is still pending in district court.
Velleca said he could not discuss specifics of the case that has been settled or the case that is still in court. But he did say making decisions for a whole agency at a high level of command can open up to legal conflict.
“You’re not going to escape litigation when you are making decisions at that level,” he said. “It’s part of the job.”
Everyone a leader
Velleca’s wife and daughter will continue to live in the family’s home in Durham, Conn., while he works in Weare. They’ll make the two-hour drive to see him on weekends, he said. They planned to all go to a John Stark High School football game last night. He likes to show his face at events like that, he said.
He wants the police department to start showing its face around town, too.
“I drove through New Boston, I drove through Goffstown,” he said. “Every place, I saw a police car. I get to Weare. I don’t see a police car. Why?
“We have to show our community that we’re out there, that we care, that we’re protecting them. . . . You can’t do that if all the cars are parked at the police station and everybody’s inside.”
At the new chief’s swearing-in ceremony Oct. 26, officers from New Haven and Weare sat with squared shoulders and crisp uniforms in the front row of plastic chairs in the Weare Middle School cafeteria.
Velleca stood at the lectern and spoke to the small crowd. He wasn’t a natural public speaker. He stumbled over some of his prepared speech. But he had obviously chosen his words with care, and when he directed his address to the officers in the front row, his voice was strong, and those words were frank.
“I expect you all to be leaders,” Velleca said to them. “You’re as responsible for the morale and reputation of this department as I am. You must be custodians of the honor of police. I not only expect you to refrain from misconduct, I expect you to prevent it.”
It’s a zero-fail mission, and it starts now.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)