Thursday, October 02, 2008

Elfin Magic?

... or "Elfin Asshole"? [another post on Arthur L. Spada]

'Old School' Judge Adjusts to Running Police Force

By PAUL ZIELBAUER

Published: June 25, 2000

Arthur L. Spada, Connecticut's newly minted state police commissioner, likes to talk about the lessons he learned growing up in the ghetto. His parents, a bricklayer and a seamstress, arrived from Sicily in 1923, and raised their children on Front Street, on Hartford's hardscrabble east side in a house without indoor plumbing.

''We shined shoes at age 8 and 10,'' Mr. Spada recalled with proud fondness, sitting in his tall new leather chair behind his enormous new desk at state police headquarters. ''We were ditch-diggers at 16.'' Before he left for Wesleyan University, where he studied history and, at 5 feet 4, became a starting linebacker, Mr. Spada had also worked four summers in Connecticut's tobacco fields, earning 35 cents an hour. ''You came home, your whole body was loaded with nicotine,'' he said, brushing his hands over his arms.

''A day doesn't go by,'' he went on, leaning over the desk, where two needle-sharp pencils poked out of a rainbow-striped coffee mug, ''that I don't make a value judgment on whether something is worth buying or investing based on the economics I learned on Front Street.''

Mr. Spada, 67, is what some of the younger state troopers might call old school. Until he retired to take his current job, Mr. Spada spent the last 22 years as a Superior Court judge with no use for pagers, cell phones, computers or, by his admission, stylish clothing. ''Judges are not fashion plates,'' he said, grimacing.

Now all that is changing, and Mr. Spada -- he still gets called Judge more than Commissioner -- is struggling to adapt, not only to the new electronics (''They even gave me a laptop''), new suits (bought at Filene's Basement) and his new gun (required), but also to a new profession.

''I've gone from kind of a monastic culture, where you sat in a courthouse chambers the size of my bathroom facility'' -- he jerked a thumb at the private toilet next door to his office -- ''to a culture involving people, contacts,'' he said. ''As a judge, when you came into the courtroom, you had the first word and the last word. Now, you're working with 1,500 people. That is a cultural shock that I'm still adjusting to. You just simply cannot work as a Lone Ranger.''

Though he has never been a police officer, Mr. Spada said it is imperative to show his new employees that he is one of them. ''My responsibility is to show them that if I don't have blue blood,'' he said, referring to the police kind of blue, ''I know what blue blood is.''

Having been on the job for two weeks, Mr. Spada has begun drafting an agenda: to hire more troopers, including more non-white men and women, and boost the pay that already ranks third highest of all state police agencies; to complete the installation of a new Motorola radio communications system; and to wire all patrol cars with on-board computers.

There is one more policy change to come under Commissioner Spada: traffic violations. The Commissioner promised that troopers would soon begin an all-out attack on Connecticut's increasingly crowded highway traffic, ticketing speeders, tailgaters and bringing what Mr. Spada twice referred to as ''rogue truckers'' to ''a screeching halt.''

With the General Assembly's approval, Commissioner Spada would also like to begin using video cameras already installed along Interstate 95, where the speed limit is 55 m.p.h., to catch speeders.

While Mr. Spada adjusts to being a member of the police force, he is also adapting to other things, like the hour it takes to drive 20 miles north to Hartford each night, not because of traffic congestion, but because his chauffeured state police car is required by law to pull over and assist any stranded or disabled vehicles encountered on the state's highways. ''It's a very unusual, lucky day when we can get home without any incidences,'' Mr. Spada said, toying with a pair of black wrap-around sunglasses, a gift from his predecessor, Dr. Henry Lee.

When word got out that Gov. John G. Rowland had offered the commissioner's job to Mr. Spada, best known as the grand jurist who presided over the indictment of six police officers in 1994, including one state trooper, people immediately compared him to Dr. Lee. An unusually popular state police commissioner who pioneered the application of forensic science to police work, Dr. Lee left the department after two years and remains a consultant to the Connecticut State Police.

The comparisons did not trouble Mr. Spada, who believes he will be every bit the efficient administrator Dr. Lee was. But if Dr. Lee infused the agency with star power and a touch of high-tech elan, Commissioner Spada intends to improve it with elbow grease and a work ethic learned in the tobacco fields. All applied with the charm and curiosity that have served Mr. Spada well over the years.

An avid reader of history, including five biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Judge Spada ingratiated himself with a group of judges visiting from Bosnia three years ago by displaying a detailed knowledge of European history and discussing the peregrinations of the Visigoths through southern Europe.

''They were extremely impressed,'' said Anthony Fisser, who leads the Connecticut Judges Institute, a continuing education program for state judges.

Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, who first met Mr. Spada nearly 20 years ago, said Mr. Spada was a deceptively simple man. ''He's a much smarter and articulate person that your impression might be on first meeting him,'' Mr. Blumenthal said. ''When I met him, I remember thinking, 'Gee, this guy is charming, but how smart is he?' But he is razor sharp. He doesn't need to use multisyllable words to show anybody how smart he is.''

But Mr. Spada does not seem like a man whose life is dedicated only to work. On warm weekends, he gardens; he cycles 25 miles every Saturday and Sunday or plays golf at a public course, which, he points out, costs only $6 a round. In the winter, he skis at Butternut, a hill in Connecticut where lift tickets are $9. How long will he stay on the job? That depends on two things, he said: he will stay as long as the governor wants him to, and as long as his health holds out. Mr. Spada underwent quadruple bypass surgery 18 years ago, and has had no complications since.

''Am I lucky? How long will it last?'' he asked, and he rapped his knuckles on his big new wooden desk.

Correction: July 2, 2000, Sunday An article last Sunday about Arthur L. Spada, Connecticut's new state police commissioner, misstated the location of Butternut Basin Ski Area, where Mr. Spada skis in the winter. It is in Massachusetts, not Connecticut.

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