The year was 1977 and 24-year-old Officer John DeCarlo who sported an era-appropriate mustache received his first assignment. “No one knew me in town,” said DeCarlo, “and they sent me into a brothel.” Wired and undercover, the greenhorn was sent into the King’s Ransom–a fronted massage parlor where Costal Wine and Spirits is today–to expose a prostitution ring. Laughing now, DeCarlo shares that he was successful in his assignment–one he still hasn’t lived down to this day. But that’s just the good-spirited nature of DeCarlo, an enthusiasm that will be missed when he leaves his post as Chief of the Branford Police Department this summer (he believes it will be July) to become an associate professor at the University of New Haven.
It’s easy to get lost in conversation with DeCarlo; he’s an encyclopedia of policing knowledge and his gift of empowering his force through education and research will serve his future students well.
DeCarlo credits George L. Kelling, a lauded expert in criminal justice, as a person he has looked to for inspiration in making Branford Police Department one of the best in the area. It is DeCarlo's focus on research and learning that has made better police practice in Branford and beyond.
When DeCarlo became Chief in 2007, he was charged with reducing the number of motor vehicle accidents in town, which at the time were happening about 35 times a week. Branford, shared DeCarlo, is ranked in the top 50 places in the state for traffic density–that means our traffic is comparable to that of New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury. The west rotary was the problem spot in town and today is still somewhat of a driving nightmare. But DeCarlo shares that new policing tactics brought the chances of someone having an accident down to 1 in 45,000 where it was previously 1 in 4,900. This focus on traffic patrol has also worked two-fold for the department, shared DeCarlo, crediting Kelling.
Kelling is most well known for his publication in the The Atlantic, “Broken Windows,” with James Q. Wilson but his piece on order maintenance policing, which helped to clean up New York City subways is where DeCarlo learned how to reduce Branford’s crime rate. The tactic used in New York, was for police to go after subway turnstile jumpers and arrest them for the small crime; the theory was that those small-crime offenders were also the same people committing larger crimes. The method proved successful. DeCarlo recalls a conversation with Kelling, asking him how he could apply the same method in a “small town like Branford?” Kelling told DeCarlo: “Traffic. All criminals, like the turnstile jumpers, commit traffic violations.”
So how has Branford changed in his 34 years on the force? DeCarlo said, “The needs of the community have not changed. We’ve taken the taken the needs of the community and distilled them down to this mission: “To reduce crime. That is just as true now as it was in 1977.”
A focus on crime reduction is just one piece of DeCarlo’s legacy; he’s also credited with several innovations for Branford Police including bringing one of the first regional crime labs to Branford as well as a crime analysis system that he created himself.
In the 1980s when DeCarlo was a working as a detective and later a sergeant, he was studying at the Univeristy of New Haven under the famed Dr. Henry Lee. He took the knowledge of forensics back to Branford to create the first crime scene processing lab in the region; today the processing is done off-site with the state’s advancement in labs.
In 1999, DeCarlo, who had become lieutenant, invented NextGen, a computer crime analysis system, which is now used in more than 50 departments including the Connecticut State Police Department. DeCarlo said, again laughing, that he sold his interest in the company just before his business partner signed the high-price tag contract with the state police. “I am immeasurably happy,” he said, with or without the millions.
Another highlight of DeCarlo’s tenure has been his focus on a transparent department and strong relationship with the community. “People tend to be really open with you–it’s about finding out about their needs,” said DeCarlo. Fear of crime was something DeCarlo saw as an issue so he set out to change that. , an automated information system was added to the department’s communications to keep residents in the “know” and to work with residents in thwarting criminals. A real of this program was realized in February when a Pine Orchard resident put an end to a string of home burglaries by altering police to suspicious activity after she had recalled a query to residents to be on the lookout. “Police being part of the community,” said DeCarlo, “rather than being apart from the community” has made a difference. “We need the buy-in of the public,” said DeCarlo. “We can not do the job effectively alone.”
He believes in the connection of the department and the public so much, he had former 18th century prime minister Robert Peel’s quote put on a coin. It reads: “Police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that give reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”
And the job isn’t done. Even as he departs, DeCarlo has set up several initiatives to keep the department moving forward. He met Joe Brummer, Branford resident and Associate Executive Director of Community Mediation, Inc. in New Haven this past winter. The two hit it off and Brummer will be working with the Police Department in non-violent communication training and mediation in the coming year.
As for the shoes that need to be filled, the job will be opened to three internal candidates, Deputy Chief Tom Fowler, Captain Geoffrey Morgan and Captain Kevin Halloran. DeCarlo holds all three in high regard and the decision for Chief will be left in the hands of the Police Commission. In addition to having interviews with the commission, all three candidates will be taking written and oral tests at South Central Criminal Justice Administration (SCCJA). Though a test has never been part of a requirement for an incoming Chief, DeCarlo said it’s a good metric for the commission to gauge the three very capable candidates–this is also the first time in Branford Police history that the Deputy Chief is not automatically made Chief.
“I am the 10th chief of the department, said DeCarlo, and I would say, the department at this point, because of the quality of people here–we are in better shape than we’ve ever been and that’s not about me.” The success of the department he said lies in this secret: “Higher good people and get out of their way.”