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New London - The city's police force has shrunk by nearly 30 percent since 2011, leaving the department at its lowest levels in at least a decade and raising questions about public safety.
Some pin the exodus on the potential for layoffs when the police budget was cut by more than $900,000 this year, while others maintain that officers are fleeing a department that has become dysfunctional and suffers from low morale under Chief Margaret Ackley.
Regardless of the reasons, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Friday that he believes staffing numbers, while not optimal, "are adequate to meet the both budgetary requirements and public safety needs."
Finizio said he had advocated for more police when he ran for office but budget realities have made that impossible. He said a better allocation of police resources in past years has helped the department control the crime rate. The officers who have left, he acknowledged, have helped the force avoid layoffs.
Finizio said he expects that the department eventually will begin the hiring process to avoid any further dip in numbers.
"My first priority is to make sure we don't go broke," Finizio said. "We don't want to be Detroit."
However, council member John J. Maynard, president of the Public Safety Committee, said the city needs more officers and needs to find the money to pay them.
Maynard said the department is in disarray and has urged Finizio to replace Ackley.
"It's the top dog that is responsible," he said. "It's not just decimation of their numbers. Morale is at an all-time low. It's because they don't know whether they're going to have a job tomorrow or not.
"It's bad enough they didn't fill the vacancies from past years," he said. "Look at downtown right now. We have no walking beats anymore. We used to have officers down there all the time."
The department employed 99 officers in 2011 and 97 last year, according to the city's finance department. City records show 80 officers on the payroll when this year's budget was being prepared. Ackley said that today, the number of uniformed officers stands at 70. Those numbers include supervisors, as well as the chief and deputy chief. Patrol officers now number in the mid-40s.
The police union claims 21 officers hired by Ackley, who took over as chief in 2009, have left for other departments, while another 13 have retired. In responding to a Freedom of Information request by The Day, Chief Administrative Officer Jane Glover said in a letter that the city does not have the dates of hire and dates of separation for members of the department.
At least 10 officers have parted ways with the department over the past two months, nine of whom have joined other law enforcement agencies. It costs the city $80,000 to $100,000 to train and equip an officer, and the city would have to spend that money again if those veterans were replaced by first-time officers.
"It's a financial burden on the community when they spend all that money to have them jump ship as soon they're certified," said Leslie Williams Jr., the director of the Law Enforcement Council Inc. "That's a real kick in the pants."
Former city police captain Ken Edwards, speaking at a committee meeting of the City Council last month, said the city was hemorrhaging money because of the departing officers.
"We were the certified department that people wanted to come to," Edwards said at the meeting.
Finizio said he continues to hold internal discussions with police management to address the complaints, which have included criticism of the city's decision to reduce the size of the department's canine unit.
"Concerns about management or morale in any department are taken very seriously," Finizio said. "We're well aware of the concerns and criticisms that have been made."
An issue of money
The threat of layoffs has lingered in recent years.
In May 2012, officers stood outside City Hall with numbers taped to their chests, representing how many officers were to be laid off. Early estimates from Finizio were that 10 officers would get pink slips. No layoffs have occurred this year and Finizio said the departures have helped to avoid them.
Finance Director Jeff Smith said New London has been forced to implement severe cuts in staffing levels in many departments to keep up with shrinking revenues.
"Over a period of years, we have continued to have to cut back. There simply hasn't been the money," Smith said. "You never want to have to go to public safety. But not unlike a lot of other cities, there is no place else to go. You can't spend dollars you don't have.
"I look at the bottom line. Here are the total revenues and total expenditures. And here's the difference," Smith said. "The mayor and the council have to wrestle with that. Take these scarce dollars and figure out how are we going to spread this out - to meet the needs of the public in the most efficient and effective manner. These are very serious and difficult decisions."
Smith referred to public works, public safety and public education as "the big three."
"Every one of these is being squeezed," he said.
Williams, the director of the Law Enforcement Council that tests would-be police officers for 22 municipalities, said candidates traditionally have been attracted to jobs in cities like Norwich, Willimantic and New London because there's more action and the departments offer a wider array of specialized units, such as marine units, detective divisions and canine units.
New London has no shortage of activity. Statistics show that the city's dispatch center is the most active in the county with 37,874 calls in 2012. Norwich and Groton had 23,633 and 18,050 calls respectively, according to the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection's Division of Statewide Emergency Telecommunications.
But Williams said prospective officers above many other factors look for job stability, and a "layoff bubble hanging over your head" does not translate to stability.
"They're there for the long term," Williams said. "If they feel the ground falling out from under them, they're going to jump out."
It's too early to gauge how the diminishing number of officers impacts the city's crime rate, which city officials claim has dropped from 2011 to 2012. Official statistics for 2012 have not yet been released by the FBI.
Norwich, Waterford boon
An officer jumping from department to department in the past, Williams said, was forced to retake the entire barrage of tests for the new department. Now, certified police officers can move around as they please.
In Stonington, officers have to serve three years or, as part of their contract, must reimburse the town for their training, Williams said.
New London's losses have benefitted other towns. Norwich hired six former New London officers in recent years and Waterford recently swore in three. Five officers in recent years have become state troopers, according to the union.
Norwich Police Lt. Christopher Ferace said it's a great advantage to have trained, certified officers in good standing join the department because of the time and cost savings for the city.
While the pay scale in Norwich does not increase as quickly it does in New London, Ferace said he believes Norwich offers an attractive benefits package that includes full retirement with medical benefits after 20 years of service.
"Just about every officer (from New London) that came here took a pay cut to start," Ferace said. "We haven't actually recruited anyone. They're coming to us. I think there are officers that looked here because of the uncertainty of where they were."
New London Officer Todd Lynch, the local union president and a former state police sergeant, said the main reason good officers are leaving stems from leadership issues.
"It's pretty clear. It seems like if this was the private sector the owner of the company would get rid of whoever is running it," Lynch said. "Good people are leaving. They're leaving and nobody is doing anything about."
Lynch said that even if money was restored to allow for new hires, it might be a difficult sell to attract certified officers.
"With the toxic environment here, to try and get someone sworn that is going to pick this place - good luck in that," Lynch said.
And while the department may be at a low point, Lynch said, that doesn't take away from the hard work and dedication of the officers that remain.
"I think most of the people, they love the police work," Lynch said. "And they chose New London for a reason. It's a close-knit group of people."
Lynch urged city administrators to address management issues.
"We may not go to dinner at the end of the day," he said of the mayor and chief, "but our job is to come together for the benefit of the community. Whatever else is happening, let's make it a better place to work."