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Outgoing officers reflect on careers with New London Police Department

By Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: The Day

Published January 15. 2012 4:00AM   Updated January 17. 2012 6:54PM
Tim Martin/The Day
Newly retired New London police Capt. William Dittman greets a well-wisher at Muddy Waters Thursday in New London.

New London - When the deputy chief and two captains lost their jobs last week, they walked out of the city's police station with a combined 84 years of experience.

The mayor did not renew the one-year contract of Deputy Chief Marshall Segar, who had worked in the department for 21 years, the last two as deputy. And Capt. Michael Lacey, who worked in New London for 28 years and was in charge of the records division, and Capt. William Dittman, a 35-year veteran who most recently was assigned to the patrol division, retired in response to an offer from the city. (This sentence corrects an earlier version of this article.)

"In any organization, whether a municipality, the state or Apple computer, something is lost when anyone with all that background and institutional knowledge leaves," said former police chief Bruce Rinehart, who worked with all three officers during his 42-year career in the city.

"Granted, no one can stay forever," he said. "But they do have the experience to deal with things more expeditiously when they happen. You lose that."

The departure of the three senior officers comes at a time of turmoil for the 90-plus-member department.

Earlier this month, officer Joshua Bergeson was fired, and K-9 officer Roger Newton was put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into his conduct while on duty. The mayor also requested the assistance of the Connecticut State Police Central Division in an ongoing investigation into possible corruption in the department.

The mayor also proposed a $25,000 settlement with Police Chief Margaret Ackley in response to her complaint that former City Councilor Michael Buscetto III harassed her and undermined her authority.

Despite the problems, Dittman and Segar said they are leaving a force that is well trained and capable.

"There are fabulous people and extraordinary officers who have left the department and remain there,'' Segar said. "The men and women in the department are second to none. They do more with less than anyone I've ever seen.''

A state accreditation granted last fall to the department for completing an overhaul of its 900-page general duty manual was a significant milestone, Segar said. The changes were the first amendments to the manual in two decades.

"Management should not be through folklore,'' he said.

Dittman, who headed investigative services for more than 15 years before being reassigned to the patrol division in 2010, was a candidate for police chief in 2009. The city hired Ackley, his colleague.

He said the officers in the department are strong and dedicated.

"If you can be a police officer here, you can be one anywhere,'' he said.

"I feel a little sad leaving,'' Dittman said, adding that he will not miss the middle-of-the-night telephone calls. "But I think we're leaving a very strong department.''

Rough-and-tumble

Dittman, 58, began his police career in New London in 1976. After passing a written test, he was hired as a supernumerary and handed a gun and a night stick.

"I had never fired a gun before in my life. Never held one,'' he said during an interview at Muddy Waters on Bank Street, where the former youth football coach sank into an overstuffed couch, looking like a contented bear ready for hibernation.

The ammunition cartridge fell out of the gun that first day, he said. But he was told to put it back, place the gun in his holster and not to take it out again.

His first assignment was walking the downtown night beat with three other officers, keeping an eye on hundreds of partiers - including sailors, prostitutes and pimps - who patronized the 36 bars that lined Bank Street. City police worked with the members of the Navy Shore Patrol, who watched over hundreds of sailors stationed aboard the submarine tender Fulton at State Pier.

"It was rough,'' Dittman said. "There was a fight every 15 minutes."

Dittman considers himself a "lucky man" because he never had to shoot anyone. He did draw his weapon "plenty of times," he said, and went home with black eyes, a broken nose, stab wounds and a few chipped teeth.

But Dittman, who trained with Scotland Yard, hosted a Russian police captain, worked on a stateside fugitive task force and was twice named Police Officer of the Year, said he loved meeting and protecting people in the city where he grew up in a family of four boys.

When he was a young cop, he was sent out to track speeders on Montauk Avenue. He came back without issuing a ticket.

"I knew everyone I pulled over,'' he said.

He remembers a time when, if police encountered a drunken driver, they would drive the person home. When there was a domestic incident, the husband was told to take a walk and cool off.

"Shame on us,'' he said. "What we didn't know then.''

Over the years, policing has changed for the better, he said. Officers go through weeks of training, and most police activity is tracked on computers.

"The training has come so far,'' he said.

The most difficult cases he dealt with involved children. He is still haunted by the case of 2-year-old Alquan White, who was killed by his father, who then carried the remains of his son around in a suitcase for more than two years. An ensuing investigation revealed that nobody had ever closely scrutinized the boy's disappearance, and then the father confessed to throwing the toddler across the room.

"He just slipped through the cracks,'' Dittman said. "You can steel yourself against a lot of things, but the worst is dealing with crimes against children."

Peter McShane, former supervisory state's attorney in New London, said he talked to Dittman nearly every day and appreciated his honesty, whether it was his passion for prosecuting a bad guy or letting the state's attorney know a case was weak.

"If you call central casting and tell them you want a tough-ass captain who knows what he's doing, they'll send you Bill Dittman,'' McShane said. "I thought he was a great cop. I think it's a real loss that he's leaving."

Dittman, who worked for seven police chiefs during his career, said he was ready to retire, but he could not discuss the details of his severance because of a confidentiality agreement. He also would not discuss any ongoing investigations in the department.

"It was time,'' he said. "The chief has new ideas, and she wants a new administration."

Founded bike patrol

Segar, who rose through the ranks to deputy chief during his career, was 23 when he was hired in New London. He already had served in the Army's military police force, stationed in Germany. He was halfway through a 14-week police academy training when he was called to serve in Desert Storm.

When he returned six months later, the personnel director for the city called and asked if he were still interested in the job. He went back to the police academy and started work in 1990.

The first assignment for the young recruit who grew up in Vernon and graduated from Rockville High School was providing police protection at the home of Wade Hyslop, now a city councilor but at the time a state legislator. The state had just passed new income tax legislation and angry protesters had gathered on the sidewalk outside Hyslop's house.

On a trip to a college in New York City to recruit minority officers, Segar and other New London officers were in the school lobby when a stabbing occurred. He and the others from New London made the arrest and waited for the New York cops to show up.

Segar lived in New London for 15 years and taught at the department's Citizens Police Academy. There he met a lot of residents, including the mother of a murder victim. Segar, who was the training supervisor at the time, worked the case from the moment it happened until the arrest.

"I felt pride that I was able to solve the murder of her son," he said.

Rinehart, the former chief, said Segar was "a very active and energetic officer.'' He had innovative ideas, which included the formation of bicycle patrols.

Segar rose through the ranks and served for seven years as union president. In 2010, he was promoted to deputy chief, which took him out of union protection. He was working with a one-year renewable contract and said he knew the risks when he took the job.

"I felt compelled to take the job,'' he said. "I felt I was going to be able to help the men and women in the department."

But he discovered that being in management was different.

"Labor waits for mistakes to happen,'' he said. "In management, you can't wait."

He said he had no indication his job was on the line until he was told his contract would not be renewed.

"I wasn't shocked. Not much shocks me,'' he said. "But I was surprised."

Segar, now 44, earned a law degree while working full-time and has his own law practice. Because of his time in the department and the Army, he is eligible for partial retirement benefits. He said he will pursue his law career.

"I have no regrets,'' he said. "Some days were better than others. ... Policing is a tough business. It's all just part of the job."

Behind the scenes

Lacey, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is described by others as a smart, quiet officer who never liked to be in the limelight.

He brought the department into the digital age, was good with labor relations and was known for his ability to recall state statutes and case law numbers, as well as offer backyard birding facts off the top of his head.

"I always thought he'd make an excellent chief some day,'' Segar said. "But he likes the behind-the-scenes.''

Lacey was one of the department's first vice officers, working undercover. Rinehart said he always came in number one on tests and was promoted quickly.

Dittman and Lacey were childhood friends who grew up within three blocks of each other in New London. Dittman said Lacey is the smartest guy he knows.

Segar and Dittman said they have been overwhelmed by support from the community after their departures were announced.

"Everybody I've dealt with, from law enforcement to the business community has always been very, very kind to me,'' Dittman said. "That's the kind of community this is."

He said there was never a day when he disliked his job.

"Some days were really hard,'' he said. "But I never walked out of the building without my head held high.''

Segar said he's received phone calls, emails, texts and thanks from people on the street. "In the end, I'm proud of my service,'' he said. "There are many, many good people in this city.''

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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