Weare police department rebuilding following botched sting operation

Last modified: 4/1/2014 12:19:45 AM
Frank Hebert arrived at the Weare Police Department nine years ago, a thirtysomething neophyte with a degree in graphic design and a nagging boyhood fascination with law enforcement. Like other new officers, he was academy trained and aware of the basic procedural tenets of life on the force. And like other recruits, his most lasting education came in the years that followed, on the job.

“That, to me, was police work,” he said. “Because that’s what I knew.”

By last August, when news broke that officers in the department had shot and killed a suspected drug dealer during a botched sting operation, Hebert, by then a detective and one of five officers at the scene, had had enough. Life in the department, long racked by lawsuits and ill reputation, was wearing thin, and he began looking for work elsewhere. When officials proposed disbanding the unit and replacing it with a private security firm, he hit a low point.

“That was my rock-bottom,” said Hebert, 42.

But in the months since, he and others in Weare, a historically sleepy town of nearly 8,000, have noticed a sea change at the police department. A new chief, John Velleca, arrived in November, and with him has come a wave of procedural rethinking. Gone are the rifles and shotguns that officers once carried without training. Undercover narcotics operations, like the one in August still under criminal investigation, have been suspended. Rampant overtime and detail work, chastised by taxpayers in the past, have been slashed.

“The rest of the department was, for lack of a better word, tired of their reputation,” Velleca said recently. “They wanted to change and were willing to do whatever they needed to do to change.”

Changes

Velleca has experience rebuilding police departments mired in scandal. He did so in New Haven less than a decade ago, and he has vowed to do it again in Weare.

To start, he suspended any practices on which the department lacked written protocol or formal training. That included the heavy weaponry and undercover drug investigations, as well as the use of unmarked cruisers and placement of arrested suspects in the station’s holding cells.

The department used to have three unmarked cruisers – a wholly unnecessary number given Weare’s low crime rate, which is less than half that of the state’s, Velleca said. “Half of the fleet was unmarked, for whatever reason,” he said. “I have no idea why.”

One of the vehicles was totalled in the August shooting. Velleca donated the second to the fire department and drives the third himself. He used the insurance money from the crash to purchase a new marked SUV.

Within weeks of arriving, Velleca launched three internal investigations into former sergeant Joseph Kelley, who was also present at the August shooting, and fired him based on their findings, according to documents filed with the state labor board. The documents suggested Kelley had doctored time sheets and abused other department procedures.

Besides undercover drug operations, Velleca has also suspended investigations involving hard narcotics, such as heroin and cocaine. Officers can still make small-scale busts, but anything bigger is now referred to the state or a regional drug task force.

“Small departments like this just don’t have the resources to do those types of jobs the right way,” he said. “They don’t have the equipment and the manpower, and they just don’t have the intelligence and the training.”

Velleca then hired a consultant to draft a more comprehensive operating manual, which should be finished and publicly available by the end of next month on the department’s new website, which launched Friday.

Inside the station, he installed video surveillance cameras, which were previously nonexistent. Hebert, now a sergeant, purged and re-organized the evidence room. Even the unit’s longtime motto, “Maintaining Unity in the Community,” was overhauled. It now reads: “Preserving the Peace.”

“That’s what our community wants us to do,” Velleca said. “They want us to understand, ‘Look, it’s peaceful here. Try and keep it that way. Don’t disrupt it. We’ll call you when we need you, and when we need you, please be professional and intelligent and know your job. But until then, let us be.’”

Overtime, another system reportedly in need of reform, has been sliced from an average of $5,000 per week last year to $2,000 per week so far in 2014. Detail work, in which officers are paid to monitor a public work site or other project, has also been scaled back significantly, Velleca said. It’s now done only if he or another senior officer deems it a safety imperative.

Struggles

For all the cosmetic changes, Velleca recognizes that the department has a distance to travel before fully regaining the public’s trust. That was perhaps most evident at town meeting last month, when voters turned down multiple police requests, including for salary increases and two new officers.

Velleca has already hired four new officers since arriving in November – all relative novices currently completing academy and on-the-ground training. With the two officers who opened fire during the August shooting still on restricted administrative duty, the department has just five full-time officers.

He has said the department would function ideally with 14 full-time officers. Without that, and given the cuts in overtime, he has been forced to shut down operations between 3 and 7 a.m.; the state police now respond to calls made during that time.

Velleca said he was not dispirited by the vote.

“I could talk about the numbers all day long, but it’s really what the community wants,” he said. “If they feel safer with 24-hour, seven-day-per-week protection, then that’s what we want to give them.”

“If we have one police officer and one car,” he added, “the car is still going to be taken care of and in good shape, the officer is still going to be professional and intelligent.”

The contract negotiations will likely continue to be an issue, though. Velleca said the department’s mid-tier officers currently make on average about $9,000 less than their counterparts in Hillsborough County. That makes it tough to retain young talent – talent the taxpayers are now paying to train, Velleca said.

The retention questions extend beyond just the officers. Velleca has signed a three-year contract with the department, but he said he has recently been getting a lot of inquiries on how long he intends to stick around. He said he looks at it differently.

“If I leave here and everything falls back to the way it was then I haven’t really done my job,” Velleca said. “So I need to stay at least until the torch can be passed and the place is not going to crumble. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. Might take three years. Might take six. Might take 10.”

Reactions

Velleca’s changes have so far earned generally positive remarks, both in and out of the department.

Mark Willis, principal at Weare Middle School, said he has seen a positive shift since the department began sending an officer there each morning and afternoon to help direct traffic. The same occurs at the elementary and high schools, Velleca said.

“Their presence is worth its weight in gold,” Willis said. “People are much more aware of their speed when they see those officers around.”

Neal Kurk, a Republican state representative from Weare, said the department’s troubles in the past centered largely around weak management, which left a work environment “run by and for the officers.”

“That’s changing under Velleca,” Kurk said. “That’s the change.”

Kurk said he is also encouraged to see new hires who are native to Weare. One, Sheila Savaria, is well known in the community and has children in the school system.

“People know her,” Kurk said. “It’s ‘Sheila,’ not ‘Officer Savaria.’ ”

Even residents like Frank Campana, a staunch conservative who voted against the new hires and renegotiated contract, seem generally impressed.

“I don’t think there will be a lot that will get out of his control,” Campana said. “And I’m not the eternal optimist.”

For Hebert, Velleca’s arrival marked a “180 degree” pivot. “It just clicked,” he said. “I remember going home and thinking, ‘This guy is not just saying it, he believes it.’ ”

Still, there will likely be struggles ahead, including potential effects from the state’s pending investigation into the August shooting. Velleca knows restoring public trust will not happen overnight. The real task, he said, is convincing his staff that it will come at all.

“I think they get that,” he said. “They just want it yesterday, and I tell them it’s not going to happen. The bad reputation took years to build, and it’s going to take a little time to knock down.”



(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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