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Bridgeport's new police chief wants officers to show empathy and sympathy

Chief Porter Swearing In-52.jpg
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City of Bridgport
New Bridgeport Police Chief Roderick Porter speaks during his swearing-in ceremony at the Margaret Morton Government Center in Bridgeport, Conn., on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Roderick Porter was sworn in as Bridgeport’s new police chief at the beginning of December.

Porter, who first joined the Bridgeport Police Department in 1993 and served for nearly three decades, came out of retirement for the job.

He takes over at a challenging time in policing as law enforcement faces more scrutiny and departments around the country, including Bridgeport, struggle with staffing shortages.

The city needed a new chief because a former chief, Armando Perez, was found guilty of rigging the 2018 police chief selection process and lying about it to the FBI. He ultimately served time in prison.

Porter spoke with Morning Edition’s Lori Mack about the issues facing the department. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lori Mack: Why did you want to be police chief?

Chief Roderick Porter: I've gotten asked that question several times recently. It's a career goal. It's also something I think I could do and make a difference. I think I'm able to bring some change. But more importantly, I think it's something I feel that I can do well. And I have a set of skills and experiences that will help contribute and bring some positivity to the organization.

Mack: What do you see as some of the most pressing issues facing not only the department, but the city right now?

Porter: For the department, it's our staffing issues, trying to attract and also retain police officers. I think the city is actually on the upswing. There's a lot of businesses moving into Bridgeport, a lot of housing coming into Bridgeport.

Mack: You mentioned recruiting and retaining police officers. That's a problem around the country. What are your plans for how to get new officers?

Porter: We have a class in now and we have an active list, so our recruiting efforts are going to be ongoing. We're trying to create feeder systems where we have people in a pipeline who will want to hopefully become Bridgeport police officers. We're offering informational sessions where we're letting potential candidates know what the process is going to be about and help them succeed through the process as well.

Mack: I read that one of your priorities is to boost morale within the department. How does morale seem to you right now?

Porter: Actually, I think it's on the upswing. I think officers were looking for some stability. I think I bring stability now. We're really being more inclusive, where every officer has the opportunity to share their ideas.

Mack: You were passed over for this job a few times — when former chief Armando Perez was appointed as acting chief in 2016. Again in 2018. And after federal authorities arrested him in 2020, over the job rigging scandal. Can you talk about your journey to get here?

Porter: My journey actually began way before that — just getting into law enforcement becoming a Bridgeport police officer and going through the ranks — way before testing for chief. But I think the experience has made me stronger, more aware. I think it increased my knowledge. I guess it wasn't meant for me to get the job at those times. So this is when it was meant to be.

Mack: There have been complaints of discrimination among the force. You yourself filed a federal lawsuit claiming racial discrimination and retaliation, which a judge dismissed, you dropped your appeal just last month. Do you think your appointment as chief will address some of the concerns within the force?

Porter: I think that my appointment will address some of the concerns, in that, I went through an extremely tough vetting process. So that process, I think, brings credibility to my appointment. My background, and my experience, brings credibility to not only the position, but to the appointment of me. And I think that validates the whole process.

I think ultimately, that's what everyone wants: an opportunity based on your qualifications, your experiences, and you want to be recognized. So I think my experience will show that's what occurred in this particular situation.

Mack: The community has also complained about the way Black residents are treated. We saw this with protests a year ago after the department came under fire for the way they handled the investigations into the deaths of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls. Both women died on the same day in two separate cases. How are you addressing those concerns, both in the department and in the community?

Porter: We're going to become much more transparent and more inclusive. The community is going to be involved in how we police, what policies we put in place. That's how we're addressing those issues. We’re really emphasizing to our officers about being respectful, creating an environment where everybody feels welcome. In the coming year, we're going to undertake a survey, where we're going to put it out to the community where they're going to be able to offer suggestions, and also answer questions regarding your experiences with police officers and interactions.

We're also going to do an internal survey with our officers, let them be a part of this. One of the keywords that I've used whenever I address the police officers in their lineups is empathy and sympathy. I think if we really emphasize those qualities, that will help us go a long way.

I also want to note that I've reached out to Lauren Smith-Fields' family, and they were at my swearing-in, actually. Her mother and her brother was at my swearing-in. I think in the near future, hopefully, I'm going to meet with them again. We've learned from that experience — not only locally, but statewide. Unfortunately, it was a tragic, tragic situation. But we've gotten better, I think, as a result of that situation.

Mack: Chief Porter, you mentioned transparency. You recently launched a weekly live question-and-answer session on Facebook. Can you talk more about how that's going?

Porter: I haven't seen the feedback on the number of people who tuned in. But I know for the first week, it was really positive. It's just a platform for people who may not have access to us or don't come to community meetings, to discuss any issues that they have, and share their ideas. And it will go the way that the community wants it to go. So I hope that continues.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.