Chief Ronnell Higgins was recently honored by the Connecticut Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), receiving its “100 Most Influential” award.
“To be recognized for the contributions made not just by me, but through my influence and leadership in our community, is a great honor,” said Higgins. “I am just one of many who are doing various things to advance progress in our communities. The NAACP recognized our efforts, and for that, I am grateful to them. In speaking with other recipients, I found that we were all bound together by one thing — service to our communities. It wasn’t so much our station or place professionally as it was how we utilize our talents, gifts, and influence to help others.”
At a young age, Higgins recognized his passion for policing. Yet the first uniform he donned was that of a correctional officer at the Bridgeport Connecticut jail, where he worked in the early 1990s. During his stint there, he says, he experienced significant personal growth and maturity. Higgins attributes being a correctional officer, particularly working in the youthful offenders’ unit, with developing a better understanding of the criminal justice system and learning the value of partnership.
“This is where I first learned true empathy. To hear the life stories and experiences of some of the young men who were incarcerated, it was a miracle that they were still alive given their circumstances and the environment they came up in. Unfortunately, they were on track to be where they were. At the end of the day, they were just kids. I became the person they could trust and count on, and they appreciated me for that.” Says Higgins, adding, “If I were to tell people now that the skills I learned working in the jail are applicable in this environment, they’d probably laugh at me but, I’m telling you, they are.”
As the son of a police lieutenant, Higgins fondly recalls tagging along on his father’s weekend shifts in downtown New Haven. “My dad was a police officer for half my life, and I have never seen him arrest anyone,” he says. “What I did see was my father being a convener, talking to people, helping them work through whatever problems they were having, serving as a resource to many people. He would call people to make certain they were doing okay and ask what more he could do. He was dedicated and tireless when it came to keeping the community safe and he led by example.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Higgins attended the New Haven Police Academy. He then joined the Yale Police Department in 1997 as an officer. Early on, he sought a variety of assignments and found plenty of opportunities. One of his favorite assignments, he says, was assistant patrol coordinator, supporting the lieutenant. “This was a huge time of growth for me because in that position I learned a lot about the university. I did all kinds of jobs — you name it, I did it — from workers’ compensation, to special event planning, to payroll, etc. That job enabled me to see different parts of Yale, beyond just policing, and gave me the opportunity to meet key members of the university.”
After being promoted to sergeant, Higgins attended the FBI National Academy, a 10-week program in which participants learn about best practices in policing, the history of policing, and leadership. After completing the program, he was promoted to patrol commander — which, he says, gave him the opportunity to “drive the bus.” Since then, crime on the Yale campus has been reduced by 33% — breaking records for crime reduction in 2012, 2016, and 2017. While he admits that at times he felt like a small fish in a “the middle of a very deep pond,” Higgins credits the department’s overall success to hard work, dedication, and the guidance of mentors along the way.
According to Higgins, who was named chief of police in 2011 and director of public safety in 2015, the ultimate professional accomplishment is the reduction of crime. “Success is never final, but I’d say that reducing crime means that more people can live, study, and work at Yale without being a victim of crime, so the biggest accomplishment is leading a team of competent and committed police officers and security personnel in reducing crime,” he says.
“The success of any police department is dependent on the behaviors of the women and men on the front lines,” he adds. “Clear direction, proper resources, appropriate training, continuing education — if there is a recipe, that is it.” Higgins says he is dedicated to applying his past experiences, along with the positive influence of his father, in his day-to-day life — using his knowledge to help others and make a positive impact on the community.
Committing himself to life-long learning and growth, in 2015, Higgins was accepted into the master’s degree program of the Naval Postgraduate School for Homeland Security and Defense. He continues to broaden his expertise in the higher education/public safety sector with a goal of continually reducing crime, raising the bar in organizational professionalism, and “continuing on the already charted path to close the gap between the police and the community we serve.”