It takes community to police a community, says chief

<b>COL. DEAN ESSERMAN</b> has presided over dramatic changes at the Providence Police Department. /
COL. DEAN ESSERMAN has presided over dramatic changes at the Providence Police Department. /

Col. Dean M. Esserman is emphatic. Although he has agreed to take part in a Q&A, he wants the story to be about the Providence Police Department. “This is not about me,” he says. “It is about ‘We.’”
Since becoming chief of police, Esserman has presided over a major decline in crime in Providence. Murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and larceny decreased 30 percent from 2002 to 2006, with both murders and rapes falling more than 50 percent. The 11 murders recorded last year were the lowest total since 1978. As a result, Esserman has been pursued by other cities. But he “loves Providence,” and is not looking to leave.

PBN: Is it as simple as putting people on the beat in the neighborhood?
ESSERMAN: No, but do I think cops count? I really think they do. I think a police department can be seen as an asset and as a deficit. We had some great police officers here. But they will tell you that their department embarrassed them. Probably the greatest gift that Mayor Cicilline gave this community from my vantage point is he took a king’s army and he returned the police to the people.

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PBN: How do you do that?
ESSERMAN: The political control and abuse of this department is gone. It was a department that had become highly centralized, highly political from promotions inside to service outside. … We have opened up neighborhood substations in every neighborhood. We have created neighborhood commanders for the first time in the city. We have returned officers to the walking beat. We’ve emptied out a great deal of the police headquarters.
On Oct. 16, 1991, I put [a copy of the U.S. Constitution] in my pocket the first time I was sworn in as a chief of police in New Haven. I’ve never taken it out. I issue it to every officer the first week of the academy. And I let them know I’m no king here. They don’t take an oath to me. The oath is to the Constitution.

PBN: There has been massive culture change. How did you accomplish it?
ESSERMAN: One, you need fuel for change. The fuel you need is crisis. The fuel I had was crisis. The community wanted change. And what maybe they didn’t fully realize was that so did the good men and women of the Police Department. I can’t tell you how profoundly that struck me when I got here. … This department was under siege. And this department was watching chronic violence go up, up, up, up as it was going down, down, down, down in America. …
The union leadership that I inherited when I got here – they were the moral leaders of this department. They were the ones who went to the Justice Department and said, “This department needs help.” They were the ones who said, “We need an outside chief.”
How do you re-engineer a department? You don’t do it with consultants. We brought in none. The entire senior leadership of this department retired. And I bought pizza and soda every night and we sat around that conference room, the staff room next door.
The mayor made it very clear, bring community policing to this entire city. Stop the violence. Investigate the cheating scandal that had never, ever, ever, been investigated. So we got over it, and we did it ourselves, all of it, including the internal investigation.
This is not a story about Dean Esserman, and you better know that. This is a story about the Providence Police Department. Everything we did here is “we.” …
We created a department that was accountable. I tell people, “I don’t care how hard you work, it means nothing to me.” I care about results. That’s all I care about. When it’s 2 in the morning, and there is a shooting in your district, and it’s raining that night, by the time I arrive, you better be wet, ’cause I’m coming. And there better not be a shooting next week.

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PBN: Are there more changes in store?
ESSERMAN: Always. The last thing we rest on is our laurels.

PBN: What is the next stage?
ESSERMAN: Whatever works. I think we have some fundamental structure right. It’s about the need for a decentralized neighborhood-based department with authority and power given at the neighborhood level. It’s about a department that has accountability and is transparent. … You know one of every three at the academy was in on a political hook? So in the academy, for every two, the third person sitting next to you didn’t deserve to be there. Every officer in this department will tell you that.

PBN: Those people are in the department now, aren’t they?
ESSERMAN: Some. But that’s my job isn’t it, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. A lot of them have walking shoes now. … I’ve got guys in this department who still don’t talk to me. … But I’ve had some guys who said to me two things. “Not for nothin’, you promoted the right guys. Thanks, chief.” And two, “Not for nothin’, we have more people taking the promotion exams then ever in the history of this department because they were tired of competing for half the seats. Not for nothin’, it’s nice to compete for all of them.” That [Commander Paul Kennedy] was promoted to be chief of detectives and now deputy chief of police is the best thing I ever did. Because I promoted honorable, hard-working honest men who the cops always respected. … A lot of police chiefs think they are rock stars. They are not. They are as good as their mayor lets them be. That’s the truth. This mayor gave the police department back to the people. The mayor was not involved in the promotion process here, not even the top ranks. I chose who was going to be here. These are important things. These are really important things. The business community knows that they can pick up the phone and call Lt. [Michael Figueiredo] as the downtown district commander and that is a more important phone call and they will get more done than calling me. •

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