Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday that he has chosen Ronnell Higgins, Yale University’s associate vice president for public safety and community engagement, to succeed James Rovella as commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Lamont revealed his selection during a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, where he also formally announced the retirements of Rovella and Col. Stavros Mellekas, the state’s top two public safety officials. The Connecticut Mirror first reported Rovella’s retirement late Tuesday and Mellekas’ departure early Wednesday.
“Every four years, I think it’s time to have a fresh start. And that’s what we’re going to do with public safety,” said Lamont, who began his second term in January. “I think this is going to be a really good transition from one good man to another good man.”
Upon confirmation by the state legislature, Higgins, formerly Yale’s chief of police and director of public safety, will become the agency’s second Black commissioner. Reuben Bradford, the first, died in 2021.
“I am looking forward to listening, learning and leading the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection,” Higgins said at the press conference with Lamont and Rovella. “I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting people in all the divisions. I want to visit all the troops, and I want to continue to ensure that the state of Connecticut is safe.”
During his time at Yale, Higgins oversaw 93 sworn officers, 15 dispatchers and a public safety department with more than 180 staff, according to his university bio. Higgins also serves on Connecticut’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council, which adopts and enforces professional standards for certification and decertification of the state’s police force. He chairs POST’s certification committee.
At Yale, he recently stood with New Haven city officials to denounce the posting of flyers by the school’s police union during student move-in weekend that depicted the town as dangerous with “shockingly high” crime. Officials described the flyers as an act of retaliation from the union during contract negotiations with the university.
He led the Yale Police Department in 2019 when both a university officer and a Hamden officer fired at least 16 bullets into a Honda Civic occupied by two people who were unarmed, according to the New Haven Independent. One of the vehicle’s occupants was struck by a bullet and went to the hospital for torso and facial injuries.
Higgins was named to oversee DESPP, which oversees the State Police, just months after an audit revealed how state troopers and constables may have falsified and submitted tens of thousands of traffic stop tickets to Connecticut’s racial profiling database.
The Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation have launched federal investigations into the ticketing scandal. Lamont has commissioned his own investigation, calling on Deidre Daly, formerly a federal prosecutor under President Barack Obama, to look into “how and why the misconduct occurred, why it went undetected for so long and what reforms should be implemented to ensure that such misconduct does not reoccur.”
As the new commissioner of emergency services and public protection, Higgins will name the next state police commander, the individual replacing Mellekas. Lamont said the selection will be up to Higgins.
The Lamont administration has had an up-and-down relationship with the State Police — led by Rovella and Mellekas — and the Connecticut State Police Union, which represents the majority of troopers. The problems first stemmed from staffing shortages and then from the passage in 2020 of a police accountability law opposed by the union.
Relations markedly improved late last year with the ratification of a contract making the state police the best-paid officers in Connecticut and significantly raising starting pay, a move intended to boost lagging recruitment. But the ticketing scandal resumed the chaos.
In August, the union that represents most troopers announced a vote of no confidence in Rovella and Mellekas, on the grounds that they failed to defend the department against the ticketing audit. They cast a similar vote in 2020 directed at Lamont, Rovella and a field commander, Lt. Col. John Eckersley.
A smaller union representing ranking members voted for a statement of no confidence in Rovella while supporting Mellekas.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Rovella said his decision to retire came after a conversation between himself and Lamont. Asked if the ticketing probe played a role in his choice to step down, he said it wasn’t “the driving force.”
A 79-page report released by state auditors in June outlined how state troopers and constables may have eroded the accuracy of the state’s racial profiling system by submitting phony traffic tickets or not reporting traffic stops. The data was skewed to reflect more infractions for white drivers and fewer for Black and Hispanic motorists.
Auditors identified 130 troopers who had more than 20% of their overall traffic stop records uncorroborated in any given year, combined with those who had more than eight unmatched records in any given year. The researchers identified hundreds of troopers and constables with discrepancies, but the State Police opted to place their attention on the 130.
Union officials complained that the release of the audit was premature and that further analysis had already cleared 26 troopers. The union, whose leadership has been implicated in the scandal, faulted Rovella for not defending the agency. Rovella declined to speak about the ticketing scandal, adding that he doesn’t think “very much of hindsight.”
“What’s done is done, and we’ll move forward from there,” he said.
When Higgins assumes his role as commissioner, his duties will consist of finding ways to mend the relationship with the union while also holding troopers and constables accountable if any of the pending investigations find intentional wrongdoing.
“I’ve been firm, fair and consistent throughout my career,” Higgins said. “How I show up, and meeting every individual, and them understanding and being aware that at the end of the day, I am here to listen, learn and lead.”
Higgins also he said he wants to “ensure that the organization, not just the State Police, but all six of the agencies within the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, have competent leadership, are treated well and have all the resources that they need.”
Lamont said he expects Rovella and Mellekas to stay in their roles for the next “five or six weeks.” Higgins will face confirmation when the legislature returns in February.