MIDDLETOWN — After an hour of questions on Monday night, Middletown Common Council voted unanimously to approve hiring Erik Costa as the city’s next chief of police.
Costa will become the next chief of the Middletown Police Department following the completion of a background check. Mayor Ben Florsheim said that the city’s human resources department is working with a “trusted third party” to complete the process.
Costa will bring 26 years law enforcement experience to the department, from his first job as a seasonal officer on Martha’s Vineyard, and serving as the commander of the Connecticut State Police Troop F in Westbrook, to working as the resident trooper of Haddam and Brooklyn, to a job in the Major Crimes division, and as commander of the State Police Research and Planning at its headquarters in Middletown.
Below are some of the questions council members asked Costa before voting to approve his hire.
Councilman Eugene Nocera: A question that people are asking more and more of our police department is, how are our leaders going to continue to build trust and legitimacy in the community so that people feel connected to our police department?
I think it’s important that as police chief, I build on the strengths of the department. Coming from the outside and knowing the city of Middletown, and knowing the department from the outside in, it comes with a very good reputation around the state. It really, truly does. So, I will be focusing on the strengths of the officers that are there, the command staff, and build upon that. Then bridging it to the community, and reaching out to the community groups, as we see who needs our help, who’s looking to build those bonds, to build a culture of us together, and not us against them. I think that’s the most important message to have out there as a police department head.
Nocera: What is your experience with community policing, and what do you hope to bring to Middletown that perhaps we haven’t tried?
I believe that moving forward, communication is the key. Thinking out of the box, giving the officers the opportunity to focus their skills that they have, and bringing it into the community. I was a student athlete growing up, and it had a big effect in my life with leadership.
Being an active member in the community. I think those are things that we need to present to the community through our policing, whether it’s through the arts, whether it’s through athletics, whether it’s through building partnerships with the school board – especially with the superintendent of schools – to put in effective programming for our youth leadership programs that teach commitment to community service, to the service to the service to the city, and to the community at large. I think those are the things that I’m looking to do with the department. And giving the officers that opportunity to expand on their skills. In my experience of 26 years, they truly want to be part of the community, and they truly want to have open communication and dialogue. And I think it’s my job as chief to ensure that that frustration, and those issues get squelched, so we can build from a good foundation of having a secure, positive forward facing agency.
Councilman Edward McKeon: This Common Council has made a commitment to explore the creation of a Citizen’s Review Board, and we’ve already met with resistance from the department, who have stood before us in the chamber and said that they can handle the problems themselves. I’d like to know your opinions of the creation of a Citizen’s Review Board, and how you will work to make sure that both the citizens and the force are working together to make sure that if one is put in place, that it will be effective and make all parties satisfied with the result.
I understand the climate of the nation, the state of Connecticut, and the concerns here in the city in regards to wanting to be diverse and inclusive. I tell you, as chief, I do support a Civilian Review Board. I do support it in a manner of, were it under a policy and [standard operating procedure] that comes forward with training that brings both the police and the Civilian Review Board members to a clear understanding that’s clear and concise.
I know it’s a challenging time, but to me, it’s an exciting time. This is an opportunity for young officers, and seasoned officers, to formulate the new way of policing. Policing is not going to change. There’s evil everywhere, and our job is to stop that evil, to stop people from being taken advantage of. That doesn’t change in policing. What’s changing is the ability for the department to reflect its community. That’s all the community is looking for.
I don’t fear the Civilian Review Board. But I will support every officer and everyone that sits on the board to do what’s right, to represent the town and the city, as it should be, holding it to the standards of a law enforcement agency.
And I understand that there’s going to be tough conversations in regards to the board. I’m ready to have those conversations. But at the same time, we build the review board together. And we understand that there needs to be a process, training, and understanding of the actual authority of the board – if it’s authority, or if it’s going to be advisory. Those types of things need to come forward in frank discussions that are fair and understanding.
Councilman Phil Pessina: One of the things you expressed during your interview was the idea of “servant leadership.” Can you tell us about that philosophy and what it means to the men and women you’ll be commanding?
I’m a servant leader. What I believe in is that I need to create opportunities for my people so they can be successful. If I don’t give them the opportunity, equipment, and the career ladder that they wish for, I’m not doing my job as a chief.
In turn, what does that do for our community? It gives us positive, forward facing officers, when they interact with our community, they know that they’re being valued. And I think that’s important right now to understand, is that this is a career field that needs to be valued, that needs to be committed to. We have to commit to having good officers here. And my job as chief isn’t to be top down, point down and demand, but to listen to my people, understand what they need to be successful, and try to provide that to them.
Pessina: What is your philosophy on policing and social services collaborating, and how important it is to not always just send the police in, but maybe send the police with social services?
I was fortunate to meet to talk about mental health services with our crisis response here in the city, and [to start] building a communication to have them respond with officers to mental health crises. I plan to champion this in the city, because I know other cities have this on board, and it’s been very effective. Bridgeport, I know has been mentioned. Meriden has been mentioned. Those are important programs that we need to look at to formulate our program here.
But I think what you’ll find when you build and commit to a program such as that, when we have crisis intervention coming in with law enforcement, is that takes the burden off law enforcement, and gets the services quicker to the people that truly need it. And I know there’s a homeless population here that we need to service. I think this is a perfect way to get the officers involved, to build those bridges to services, and hopefully in a quicker manner so we don’t have those types of stresses on our community.
Councilwoman Jeanette Blackwell: What are your strategies to recruit more minority officers, including women? And what are your top three goals for the department?
In this day and age, social media has been such a strong platform to do recruitment for many agencies. Now, it’s about building relationships within the community. It starts with partnerships in the community, and reaching out to groups and identifying young people to take commitment in public service. It is a struggle.
I know my counterparts across the state struggle with hiring. But this is a special place. It truly is. This is a great place where people want to come to work and be police officers. It’s a great, diverse community. I think outreach and identifying women, and diverse inclusion, and having our agency reflect the community is important to me. I have four sisters. They molded the way for me. They are very important in my life. And I know that every single one of my sisters is tough enough to work the beat, and compassionate enough to provide service. And that’s what we look for as well.
The three things that we’d like to see happen within the department are, I would like to build upon the strengths of the individuals inside. Building community policing – that means building a bridge and communication with the school departments, with youth civic organizations, such as the YMCA, and other youth groups, student athletics – those are important places for us to be seen and be part of, and to support. I’d also like to see the beginning of the structure of standards within the department moving forward towards accreditation.
I think it’s important that we are upfront and building communication, having an open door policy, and me being out in front in the community and meeting the groups that are important to the community that we represent.
Blackwell: Chief of police is a position that will garner a lot of attention, so I want to hear how you will manage the potential scrutiny, or being under the microscope in general.
I think being a police chief, scrutiny is part of the job. I think, critical feedback and at times criticism may be warranted on things that are unexpected. But I do not fear tough conversations. I think that’s part of leadership. I think understanding that my role is to be seen as a police chief doing the right thing, and that’s both privately and publicly. I don’t fear being under a microscope and having tough conversations. I know that’s part of the job. That’s how we move things forward. That’s how we build partnerships and understanding. It doesn’t need to be in conflict. We just need to have good conversations and make sure that we’re, at the end of the day, on the same page and working towards the same goals.
Councilman Grady Faulkner Jr.: One of the things that I have been concerned about is the diversity of the department, so I was wondering if you’ll be able to bring some thoughts and ideas to bring young people into that pipeline?
So my background, I love football. I’m a football coach. I was fortunate to coach my kids not just in football, but many other sports. So, it’s the “Hey, buddy,” system. You know, we all walk around the supermarket, we see somebody who looks like they’d be interested in playing. “You want to come play?”
I think it’s the same thing with Explorers and programs such as that. You have to go out and have outreach to them. “Hey, we’re going to have this.” Use a school system, use youth groups to reach out to these people and to these communities and to these families to give them the opportunity to have that access to the police department.