Ronnell A. Higgins took over Monday as the civilian who oversees public safety in Connecticut, most notably a state police department coping with a traffic-stop reporting scandal and the challenge of filling about 260 vacancies in the uniformed ranks.
“My hope for this new role is, first and foremost, to restore whatever trust that was lost,” said Higgins, who was named more than a month ago as Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice to take over the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Higgins said he already has consulted with Ken Barone, the leader of the University of Connecticut institute that found the falsified traffic reports, and Deirdre M. Daly, the former U.S. attorney Lamont hired to conduct an independent inquiry.
Higgins said he has spoken to Barone on “a number of occasions” and Daly nearly daily. While her inquiry is being conducted independently, Higgins said he is not pre-empted from consulting her directly as he forms opinions about what changes might be necessary.
“We’re going to be getting together, if not later this week, early next week for a very in-depth briefing,” Higgins said.
The report by Barone’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Police revealed how state troopers and constables may have submitted tens of thousands of falsified traffic stop tickets to the institute’s racial profiling database. A federal criminal investigation also is under way.
The Lamont administration recruited Higgins, the head of public safety at Yale University, as successor to James Rovella, the former Hartford police chief who was Lamont’s first commissioner of emergency services and public protection. His retirement was effective last week.
Even before taking the oath Monday, Higgins had put his initial stamp on the agency, recommending the interim appointment two weeks ago of Daniel Loughman as commander of the state police, succeeding Col. Stavros Mellekas, who also retired.
Higgins cannot make Loughman’s appointment permanent until he is confirmed as commissioner after the General Assembly convenes in February. In Loughman, he chose the commanding officer of professional standards and training.
“Col. Loughman is someone who I believe is not only skillful and trustworthy, but someone who’s an emerging leader in public safety in the state of Connecticut,” Higgins said. “And I believe that working with him, coaching, mentoring and supporting him, I believe we’re going to be OK.”
Higgins promised a level of attention from him and Loughman to the small details that shape an agency’s culture and expectations.
“My hope is to bring bring us a sense of ‘broken windows’ of policing within the agency internally — dealing with the little things, if I can say that, making sure that our practices align with our policies, making sure that leadership even at the sergeant’s level is doing as they should,” Higgins said.
Higgins declined to offer examples of those “little things” that might be in need of more attention.
“That would be premature for me to talk about,” Higgins said. “The colonel and I still have a lot to talk about.”
Lamont administered the oath of office to Higgins in a ceremony at the agency’s headquarters in Middletown. The new commissioner’s wife, Robin, pinned a gold badge on the lapel of his suit, then lightly kissed her husband.
She is a retired New Haven police officer, as is the commissioner’s father, Reginald Higgins Sr.
“I think it’s in the genes,” Lamont said of policing and the Higgins family.