(This is the first in a series of interviews with the candidates for the Democratic nomination to challenge Mayor Richard Moccia in November.)
NORWALK, Conn. – Harry Rilling had plenty of chances to take the gloves off and fire away at his former boss Sunday afternoon. He also could have opened up on his fellow candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor. He demurred.
Instead, the former Norwalk police chief spent his time at a South Norwalk Democratic mayoral meet-and-greet differentiating himself from incumbent Republican Mayor Richard Moccia by emphasizing his plans for the city – among them, a more open and civil government.
“If you look at all my issues – economic development, education and crime, along with a transparent, open, inclusive and civil government – they’re all inter-related,” he said. “And one has an impact on the other.”
Rilling spoke with NancyOnNorwalk after addressing the 60 or so people gathered at the South Norwalk Community Center on a gorgeous, sunny Sunday afternoon to meet and compare the candidates.
Moccia has said his administration made sure the police department had the manpower and equipment it needed to do the job. Recently, the mayor said the new budget would put three more officers on duty, helping to keep schools safe and working the streets when not in the schools. But Rilling, without mentioning Moccia, painted another picture.
“We had an authorized strength of 181, but they only funded 175,” he said. “So by returning three officers, they are bringing funded strength up to 178. That’s still three short of the authorized strength.”
The former chief plans to boost the police department well beyond the current level if he is elected. But it will take some time, he said.
“I have a plan that, when the developments in Norwalk start moving forward, and the grand list grows, that we would not only be able to take some of the tax burden off the shoulders of the homeowners, but we would be able to put money where it’s most needed. And I have a five-year plan to increase the police department by four officers year for five tears, bringing us up to over 200, which is appropriate for a city the size of Norwalk.”
But more bodies alone won’t do the job, Rilling said.
“I have a plan to put the GREAT program – the Gang Resistance Education and Training program – in the middle schools, where young people are most likely to be recruited by gang members. Those are the kind of things that we need to deal with crime.”
Community involvement is another, he said, and he expressed some frustration with that part of the equation.
“When you start talking about crime, everyone starts talking about ‘What is the police department doing?’ I can’t tell you how many meetings I attended where everybody was all upset because something happened, and they’re saying ‘we gotta do this, and we gotta to that,’ and, the next thing you know, there’s no more meetings until something happens again. You can’t lay crime at the doorstep of the police department and then walk away. And you cannot arrest yourself out of a crime problem.”
That brought him back to a major part of his platform: Norwalk’s youth.
“You have to provide opportunities and alternatives for young people,” he said. “Young people need alternate means of growing and developing and not looking to the gang as their family. They need to feel people care. “
Rilling said Norwalk has plenty of programs for young people, but questioned whether they are the right programs to attract the kids you are most in need.
“We had situations where we’d run a program, and who’s going? This council person’’s son, that Board of Education member’s daughter – everybody but the right people were getting to go to those programs,” he said.
“When I was chief of police, I brought to Norwalk a program called Critical Incident Protocol (CIP) to build public and private partnerships so we can work together in the pbublic and private sectors to share our resources, because the public sector has limited resources but they have wonderful experience and expertise in dealing with crises. The private sector has money and they have all those wonderful little toys that they can’t afford. So we bring them together, and we prepare and we plan before a crisis hits.”
That planning is critical, Rilling said, because once a crisis hits, it may be too late.
“A great ‘philosopher’ – you might remember his name: Mike Tyson – said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ But you know what? If you get punched in the face, you better have a plan to deal with that.”
Some in Norwalk have questioned the police department’s performance under Rilling’s leadership when it came to closing crimes. The ex-chief responded that Norwalk was actually in line with other departments in that area – about 19 percent of major felonies get solved.
As of the year 2000, the Part 1 crime rate was, in fact, in the teens for most offenses nationwide (click here for chart).
Part of the reason for the low rate in cities, he said, is that young people prefer to take matters into their own hands.
“I found it very unsettling that somebody’s son, daughter, father, sister, might be a victim of violent crime, and a member of the family might know about it, and the mindset is, ‘well I’m not going to talk to the police, we’ll take care of it ourselves,’” he said.
“When I took over as police chief, there were very few people who trusted the Norwalk Police Department. My main goal was to bring police officers and the public together, and I started my monthly meet- the-chief meetings. I brought my staff with me. We did build some bridges between the police and the community. I plan on doing same thing as mayor.”
He said the monthly Mayor’s Night Out will include his staff, “whether they like it or not,” and they will listen to people “and they can tell us what they want, not what we think they want.”
Rilling grew up in Norwalk, went to Norwalk public schools and has spent his career here. He said people used to move to Norwalk so they could send their children to schools here. Now, he said, people move to get them out.
“We need to get a good superintendent, and we need that superintendent to get the full support of the Board of Education,” he said. “We need to have the Board of Education be more civil and not be arguing with each other so that they can work for the betterment of our children. That’s what their job is.”
And again, Rilling turned his focus to the segment of the city’s young people who are most at risk and who he feels are under-served.
“We need a life/social skills program because not every kid is going to be able to go to college,” he said. “We want to prepare them. We want to ensure that they can and will graduate from high school. And with life/social skills, you teach conflict resolution, you teach self-awareness, you teach AIDS awareness, you teach health and hygiene, you teach about banking and funding and those kinds of things, and you prepare them to go out into the word and to start earning a living.
“I want to build public/private partnerships between the trades and with our young people who may not go off to college, where they’ll have internships for plumbers, for carpenters, for masons, electricians, mechanics, where you do on-the-job training, where you gain the skills to go on working in that trade, or perhaps even own your own business.”
And keeping those young people in Norwalk when they enter the workforce brings it full circle, he said. By making sure those in the workforce can afford to live in Norwalk, it keeps the money in the city and contributes to the economy and the tax base, he said.
“I am a strong advocate of affordable housing, of workforce housing, because we need people who work in Norwalk to be able to live here,” Rilling said. “Right now many people work in Norwalk, and when they go home at night they go to Trumbull, Fairfield, they go to Southport, Huntington, they go someplace else. They can’t afford to live here in Norwalk. That’s why I was so focused on 20 North Water Street. You get a waiter or a waitress that works hard at night, gets off at 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the morning, they could walk around the corner and go home. Not only that, if they’re in affordable housing, they can save up, invest in Norwalk, maybe raise their families here, send their children to our schools. So that’s how economic development is tied to our educational system.”
(Coming this week: Conversations with Democratic Party candidates Andy Garfunkel, Vinny Mangiacopra and Matt Miklave. After the primary, we will extend an invitation to Mayor Richard Moccia and his opponent or opponents to sit down for interviews.)