NEW LONDON – He’s been in the city barely a month, temporarily overseeing a police department in recent turmoil, but law enforcement veteran Neville Brooks is already familiar enough to the morning regulars at a downtown café to draw some friendly ribbing when he stops in for coffee.
“Hey, where’d you get that hat?” teases one man sitting next to the front door of Muddy Waters Café on Tuesday, seconds after the impeccably-dressed Brooks walks in wearing his signature stylish brim.
“You ain’t from around here are ya’?” wryly chimes in another man at a nearby table as Brooks chuckles and smiles in acknowledgement.
To Brooks, the banter is all part of his job of ensuring the community – and the officers at headquarters less than a mile away – that he is intent on not letting recent internal strife at the 70-member department detract from its mission or its morale.
“It’s all about communication,” Brooks says as he sits down at a table on the café’s outdoor deck with a view across train tracks and the Thames River to Groton. “I love building relationships and having interaction and open lines of communication. This is my wheelhouse, whether it’s here or at the department.”
Brooks, 61, is an East Hartford resident and a native of Hartford who rose to deputy chief of that city’s police force before he left in 2016 to become a public-safety consultant.
He was hired to fill in for Chief Brian Wright, who was suspended by the mayor for undisclosed reasons in early October after only three months on the job.
The city’s first Black police chief, Wright was put on administrative leave in the midst of internal investigations and lawsuits by officers alleging gender and racial-discrimination and sexual harassment by supervisors.
None of those complaints were aimed at Wright.
Wright’s suspension, which Mayor Michael Passero has said he expects to be short-lived before Wright returns to work, came after a separate internal complaint was made against him on Oct. 6.
That complaint has been described by long-time New London Police Officer and State Rep. Anthony Nolan as reputational “sabotage” carried out by officers displeased with Wright’s appointment and handling of at least one of the internal investigations, which led to the recent demotion of a lieutenant to sergeant.
Wright had replaced Chief Peter Reichard, who was accused of inaction on various internal investigations and who resigned after secretly-recorded audio surfaced of him making highly-disparaging remarks about the city, including claims that he was passed over for earlier promotions in favor of minority candidates.
Brooks, who is Black, said he has not witnessed any incidents or heard any direct complaints of the nature that led to the recent turmoil, but acknowledged that such behavior occurs in almost every large organization.
He sees his job not to focus on previous incidents of alleged harassment and discrimination, but to help move the department past them and assure they do not continue.
“I think the department needs a reset – a hard reset,” he said. “It’s only a few individuals and it’s not controlling the department, but there needs to be accountability and they need to be identified and weeded out. My objective is to get to know the department and to get them to trust me that if there are issues like that they can bring them to me.”
Brooks’ ease among the crowd at Muddy Waters is reflected in his approach at the department, he says, where he’s made personal contact and communication with officers a priority.
At least once a week, he visits each shift’s roll call, and has given out his cell phone number to each officer as a way to encourage them to reach out with any issues.
He sees his style as building off Wright’s during his short time at the helm.
“My mission is to support our officers and keep moving on the initiatives that Chief Wright had in place,” he said. “And to do that you need to get out front and talk to the troops. The biggest thing about morale is letting people know they’re appreciated.”
One example of that, he said, was his recent recognition of two officers who responded to a call at a home where children were clearly underfed, and immediately paid for some take-out food for the kids out of their own pockets.
“These are things that happen all the time but aren’t always recognized,” Brooks said. “I want the officers to know it’s appreciated.”
He also is trying to be visible in the community, and has twice attended weekend football games at New London High School to talk to residents.
He arrived at Muddy Waters on Tuesday after attending Mass at a local church, which he has done twice-weekly since arriving as another way to get to know the city and its people.
Brooks, whose official title in Wright’s absence is superintendent, said he believes he has made progress in his first 31 days in the city.
“I think people have been very receptive,” he said. “When I came in I was a stranger and I’m sure everybody was wondering why I was here and what my purpose was. But I think over the last month they realize I’m here to support them and keep them engaged with the community and keep the objectives that Chief Wright put in place moving forward.”
A request made to the police officers’ union for comment on Brooks’ command was not returned.
Brooks, meanwhile, says the next phase of his effort will be to visit every officer on his or her shift in the field to learn first-hand their challenges and potential concerns.
“This is a great police department with a lot of talent,” he said. “And I want them to know that they have access to me and that I recognize the good work they’re doing. My message is that we need to take care of those things that happened in the past, but at some point we need to move forward.”