NAUGATUCK — As a child attending the former St. Francis School on Church Street, Steven Hunt would often walk down to the police department on the bottom level of Naugatuck Town Hall after school to get a ride home from his father, a retired longtime borough police officer.
Hunt and the Naugatuck Police Department have both come a long way since those days.
Hunt, a 45-year-old Naugatuck native, has completed his ascension through the ranks and now leads the department — which has its headquarters on Spring Street instead of the cramped, basement of Town Hall — as its 15th police chief.
“I think it’s a great opportunity that I have,” said Hunt, who was sworn in during a March 15 ceremony at Naugatuck High School. “As someone that lives in town, I really look forward to meeting the challenges ahead.”
For Hunt, who lives in Naugatuck with his wife Johnna and their three daughters, meeting the challenges that lie ahead means having a proactive police department.
“Unfortunately, at times, with the number of officers we’ve had with retirements and resignations, we’ve been more of a reactive police department,” said Hunt, who has worked as a police officer for 24 years. “I would really like to get us up to full staff and really try to be more proactive, engaging with the community.”
Whether it’s officers taking time to toss a football with a child on a playground or walk along Church Street to talk with business owners and residents, Hunt wants the department to embrace a department-wide community policing philosophy and build relationships.
“The way that crime has evolved, we need the community to be our eyes and ears, and we really need their help in solving crimes,” Hunt said.
“In today’s society,” he added, “we really need to have the trust of the community, it’s very important. The community has to legitimize the police department. And, I think the way you go about that is through community relationships and getting them on board and being transparent in all that we do.”
Hunt is also focused on addressing the opioid epidemic and stemming the flow of opioids in Naugatuck.
“Everywhere I go I’m stopped by people and told about the problem that’s out there,” he said.
Hunt said there are two components to addressing the issue: education and enforcement.
Hunt plans to research and present the Board of Education with a drug prevention program that can be implemented in the school system, which used to run a D.A.R.E program.
When it comes to enforcement, Hunt said Naugatuck detectives are going to focus on narcotics trafficking and work with state and federal partners to identify and arrest drug dealers.
He has a different approach in mind when it comes to people addicted to opioids.
“You simply can’t arrest you’re way through the problem, that’s not going to solve anything,” he said in referring to people dealing with addiction. “We need to really focus on working with the court system, working with our community partners to try and get treatment for these people, instead of arrests. That’s the only way we’re going to solve the problem, getting these people treated and back to contributing members of society.”
Before the department can put its full force behind Hunt’s vision, it needs to be fully staffed, including filling a leadership void left in the wake of recent departures.
The department is budgeted for 58 sworn officer positions. As of last week, 56 were filled and it will drop to 55 at the end of the month with the retirement of an officer.
Among the vacant positions are the deputy chief and caption positions. Former Deputy Chief Joshua Bernegger resigned March 8 to take a job with the Watertown Police Department. Hunt held the captain position before being promoted to chief to replace former Police Chief Christopher Edson, who retired earlier this month.
The positions will likely be filled internally with lieutenants already on the force, but then those lieutenant positions will have to be filled internally through promotions, and so on.
“Once we get the ranks filled again, I really think that we can start working on our goals and continue to move our department forward,” Hunt said.
Hunt’s rise to the department’s top spot carries on a family legacy of law enforcement.
His father, Thomas Hunt, served in the Naugatuck Police Department from 1965 to 2010, retiring as deputy chief.
Hunt’s two brothers are also no strangers to law enforcement. Ronald Hunt retired from the Naugatuck Police Department about two years ago with the rank of detective lieutenant. Tom Hunt, who started his career as a correctional officer, is now the director of the Community Release Unit at the state Department of Corrections.
Hunt himself started his career as a correctional officer. He took a job at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown when he was 18 year old and bided his time until he could become a police officer when he turned 21.
“I always wanted to be a Naugatuck police officer. When you want to be a police officer you always take the first opportunity that presents itself, Waterbury presented itself first,” Hunt said.
Hunt spent six years as a police officer in Waterbury before a position opened up in Naugatuck.
Over the years, Hunt climbed the ranks while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Post University and his master’s degree from Boston University. He also graduated from a training program for police executives in 2014 from Northwestern University.
Hunt said each rank he’s held over the years, from patrol officer to captain, prepared him for when the borough looked to within the department for its next chief.
“I’m just very fortunate that the timing was right for me and the Police Commission selected me,” said Hunt, who signed a three-year contract that will pay him base salary of $123,000 in the first year. “We had great internal candidates, they could have selected any one of us.”