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Stamford's Chief Nivakoff: 'It's Just Time for My Era to End'

Stamford Police Chief Robert Nivakoff announced his retirement from the Stamford Police Department. He sits down with Stamford Patch to reflect.

 

A tall, thin man with a full, red beard and priest's robes enters Stamford Police Chief Robert Nivakoff's office Monday morning. It's Nivakoff's oldest son, Fr. Benedict, who stopped by to say goodbye to his father before heading to the airport.

The two hug each other and there is talk of their next visit. There is no distance or awkward pauses between them. Nivakoff is happy his son is there and is even happier to have an opportunity to talk about him. This is just one in a morning full of moments that reveal the man behind the uniform.

"He's going back to Italy. This is what my life is like right now, very busy. So he stopped in to see me," Nivakoff said of his son.

He uses the visit as a segue to talk about his other children. Kealyn Tara, his middle daughter, is a New Haven police officer who was awarded a citation for courage under fire during a gun battle. His youngest, Ryan, moved on to venture capital after an injury kept him from continuing service with the New York Police Department.

"It's time for them to start taking care of their old man," he laughs. Nivakoff  noticeably beams with pride when he talks about his children and his passion for them is mirrored in the passion he has for his job.

"It Was All Worth It"

Nivakoff's career as an officer of the law started in 1973 with a stint at what was then known as the New York Port Authority. He then moved to the Stamford Police Department in 1980 as an undercover narcotics officer, and would move through the department until taking the reigns as chief in late 2009, officially 2010.

He has a bachelor's from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Masters from the University of New Haven. He completed the Senior Management Institute for Police course at the Harvard Kennedy School for Government.

"I've always wanted to be a police officer," he said. "It was my goal in life. It was one of the happiest days of my life. It was tough to become a police officer in my day. I loved mostly all of it. It was hot. It was cold. It was working Christmas, New Year's."

Nivakoff said undercover work was some of the most "ominous, precarious, dangerous," work in which to be involved. Something was always waiting to go wrong and someone with a bad attitude was always looking to make life difficult.

Nivakoff then moved to a two-man radio car on the city's West Side, where he would work with the minority community of Stamford, and eventually reach the rank of sergeant, one of his more fondly-remembered stints in the department.

It was during this time that Nivakoff met Assistant Chief Francis Cronin, a mentor and "great man" — someone he looked up to and from whom he sought direction. Cronin passed away in March of 2011 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

"He was my lieutenant while I was a sergeant. I'll always have a special affinity for that time, in that community," he said. "But all of it, it was all worth it."

Last week, Robert Nivakoff announced his retirement. After 40 years of wearing the shield, Nivakoff decided maybe it was time to do something he'd been putting off for some time now.

"I've taken very little healing time," the chief said. "I have some injuries that are really compelling, and they're finally catching up to me. I've counted 56 significant injuries, which I guess isn't a lot for 40 years, but it added up to 38 trips to the emergency room."

Nivakoff has faced multiple head injuries, including a brain bleed on one occassion. The first thing he's going to do while recuperating is investigate options for healing.

"I have to see if I'll be a surgical candidate for my back," he said. "I'm just worried about spinal fusion. I'm starting acupuncture next week. I haven't had time to try that yet."

Nivakoff didn't just accumulate injuries and he certainly didn't get hurt so often by sitting behind a desk. In his time as an officer, he won 85 citations for excellence, dedication and bravery and won an award from the FBI for an off-duty bank robbery arrest. In 1985, he was named Stamford's Police Officer of the Year, an award voted on by previous winners and something which Nivakoff is particularly proud. In 2011, the State Police Commission named him the Distinguished Police Chief of the Year.

Nivakoff won enough respect from his peers to move to his current position and he's happy they relied on him.

"I wanted to be a police officer's chief," Nivakoff said, hoping the men and women under him—just more members of his family—always saw his actions were what he hoped were their best interests. "No matter what happened here, the department always came to each others' aid. Financially, emotionally, physically—I've never seen another department like it."

A Career of Filled With Changes, Accomplishments

And Nivakoff didn't just rely on smooth talking to sell other officers on his appeal. He really worked to change the department. From huge strides like new and updated equipment or expanded specialized units, to smaller implementations like numbered parking spots, Nivakoff hoped to to make the lives of his men and women just that much easier and that much safer.

The motorcycle squad was expanded to nine bikes. The K-9 unit was expanded to include four patrol members, a Search & Rescue unit, one bomb & ballistics unit and a narcotics unit, new vehicles and—one of the little highlights for Nivakoff—matching designated parking spaces. 

"Do you know how long you could walk around here looking for your car?" Nivakoff asks, chuckling and looking out the window at the vehicles below.

Jokes aside, Nivakoff makes clear his moves weren't just for the family in blue. It was about the community in which they worked and lived. The community they served.

"This was all about helping people," he said. "It's about making friends in the street, helping them. Not just locking them up. Don't get me wrong, I've arrested my fair share."

That's why Nivakoff also focused on expanding community programs, units and relations. Policing needed to be community-based, he said.

Under his tenure, the Stamford Police Department expanded its Youth Services and Investigations for Crimes Against Children Units. They initiated a Sexual Assault Response Team which has only seen increased utilization from the public.

"I don't think that is from an increase in crime," Nivakoff said. "I think people are just trusting us more."

He revived the Special Response Team, Stamford's version of the SWAT team. The SRT have their own mean-looking, .50-caliber-proof tank of which bad guys most certainly do not want to be caught on the business end. Stamford now also has a Hostage Negotiations Team and an Organized Crime Squad.

Nivakoff is proud of his accomplishments at the helm, as he should be. He considers Stamford's officers to be a proactive force and makes a compelling argument in support of that claim. For instance, in July, a spike of violence among rivaling teens led to 17 instances of handgun-related violence. In August, there were zero. Detectives also seized a record number of guns from people in the streets during the month of August, according to Nivakoff.

"The detectives are doing a great job," he said. "They have an 84 percent clearance rate. They've served this city better than any detective bureau in the United States, and this city deserves that. It's unbelievable."

He highlights some of the stories from his time at the department few people already know about, like when Stamford Police held the Times Square attempted bomber's car for eight days and not a single officer breathed a word to anyone about it.

"He bought it from a lady here, bought a bunch of fertilizer and other equipment, then returned it to her and made her take it back, saying he didn't like the car," Nivakoff said.

Stamford also played host to a group of terrorists and sold them stinger missiles and plastic explosives — something few others know about.

"Inert, of course," Nivakoff assures. "We were assisting the FBI, so we set up a warehouse and sold sting missiles to terrorists. They planted the plastic explosives in the Bronx."

Moving On

Nivakoff said his only regret is not meeting the city's overtime needs often enough.

"I never met those challenges," he said. "[Mayor Michael Pavia] tried to staff me, he and I had an excellent relationship. However, in these challenging economic times, it made full staffing of the police department quite difficult. I could not run the department on the budget given to me. You can never answer the question, 'Who do I not give service to?'"

Now, as he hands off the keys to Assistant Chief John Fontneau, someone Nivakoff has known for for 33 years and considers his best friend and confidant, it's not something he can worry about anymore, but he doesn't feel the need to worry.

"[Fontneau] is the best police officer I know. I hold him in the highest regard and gave the city my strongest recommendation for him to fill this role," Nivakoff said. "His kindness, compassion and caring are all-encompassing of what I hope we stood for while I was here."

There are no pauses or lags in the conversation when Nivakoff is reflecting on family, by blood or by shield. He wears it all on his sleeve. His time at the department means the world to him and he can talk easily and at length about any of the issues, memories or members—and he's been talking long enough to make him late for his next appointment. 

He laughs when he looks at his watch and grabs his sports coat off the back of his chair. He's throws it on and looks down at his phone. Then he pauses again.

"I just hope the men and women in this city, on and off the force, know how much I loved them," he said. "I certainly did my best. Everything has an end time, I guess, and this is just time for my era to end. I'm going to try my hardest not to come in on October 1st."

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