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Ackley, officers trying to get along

By Izaskun E. Larrañeta

Publication: The Day

Published November 21. 2010 4:00AM   Updated November 22. 2010 10:16AM
New London's new police chief, union move beyond 'rocky' start, grievances

New London - About a month into her tenure as police chief, Margaret Ackley made it clear that she was going to run the 89-officer department differently.

She informed officers on July 24, 2009, that she would no longer automatically choose the applicant who was first on a promotions list to fill a vacancy - a practice followed for at least the past 15 years.

Instead, she would choose an officer from a list of the top three candidates forwarded to her from the city's Personnel Department. The move prompted the police union to file a grievance in February.

During Ackley's first six months as the city's first female police chief, the union filed 27 grievances, according to documents provided by the city attorney in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Day.

The number of grievances filed in those six months was unprecedented in recent years. From 2004 to 2008, the union filed an average of 13 grievances yearly.

Members of the department didn't think Ackley was communicating well with them, according to the union president, and the union grieved issues that included promotions, military leave, discipline and supervision.

"There is a morale problem that can't be attributed to just the changes (made by Ackley)," said union President Darrin O'Mara. "Part of it was addressed in the grievances. Part of it is the relationship the chief has with the officers."

Ackley said the changes she has made are intended to improve the department and the way it serves the community.

Ackley said she is employing the "Rule of Three" when filling vacancies, where she picks from the top three candidates, because it gives her more options in selecting the right person for the position.

"The person who placed first on the test may not be the right person at this time for the job," she said. "You have to consider everything."

The matter is pending before the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration.

She said she has given more responsibilities to supervisors, who are asked to write a supervisor's observation report, or SOR, when an officer does something "good or bad."

The union filed a grievance against the SORs in September 2009. In April 2010, the two sides agreed that the SORs would not be viewed as discipline and would not become part of an officer's personnel file.

When a supervisor writes an SOR, he must go over it with the officer, and they both sign it.

"It forces a dialogue between the supervisor and officer," Ackley said. "It prevents bigger issues down the road."

'Building trust'

Ackley said she wants the department to focus more on community policing. Her mantra: "How we go about it matters."

And that is handled in simple ways, such as handing out candy on Halloween or responding to calls that are not police related.

In the past an officer might not have responded to a request to remove a trash can from the middle of the road, for example, but Ackley wants her officers doing things like that.

"It's about building trust, a relationship with the community," she said.

Ackley attends many community events and meetings.

"I hope it sends the message that we, the police department, care, and that we want to be involved with the community at all levels ...," she said.

"The higher the level of citizen involvement, the higher our success on preventing and solving crime. We count on our citizens to assist us in making New London a safe place to be," she added.

Ackley said she also expects her supervisors to "manage the resources," which she said saved the city about $758,800 from its $1.2 million overtime budget in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

She implemented monthly meetings with supervisors so they can plan ahead and see what resources will be needed on a particular day, especially if the city is hosting an event. Schedules can be changed so police coverage of the event does not result in overtime.

She also has supervisors submit a report that details the overtime from the previous day.

Ackley also introduced flex time. Flex-time officers, which includes positions such as school resource, K-9, evidence and records officers, are not supposed to work more than 80 hours during a two-week pay period. Under flex time, an officer who works 50 hours one week is expected to work 30 hours the next.

The union filed a Municipal Prohibitive Practice grievance with the state Board of Labor Relations against the practice of using flex time, which was settled last month.

The agreement clarified who were flex officers and how they were paid.

Ackley said the cost savings will not impact the community's safety.

"Of course, without a doubt, if more officers are needed to investigate a crime, we will give overtime," Ackley said. "I just want us to manage our resources more efficiently."

Two sides start to talk

O'Mara, the union president, said the relationship between Ackley and her officers has improved after a "rocky" beginning, and pointed out that more than half the grievances have been withdrawn or settled.

"There needs to be more communication, and it has gotten a little better. It still isn't perfect. We're starting to talk. It's a learning curve on both sides," he said.

He said Ackley hasn't clearly communicated her vision for the department to her officers.

"Where she wants to take the police department is not exactly clear to us," he said.

City Attorney Brian Estep said the high number of union grievances was not surprising considering the force had a new leader after serving under one chief for 15 years.

"Anytime there is a new department head, with a new outlook there is going to be a shakedown period," he said. "A new department head may have different priorities than that of the union. It takes times to feel each other out."

"She has made instrumental changes that people might not be happy with," Estep said.

Officers leaving at issue

In September, union members gathered at the Radisson Hotel to consider whether they should pursue a vote of no confidence in their chief.

O'Mara, however, said the union is no longer pursuing that option.

After the September meeting, some union members said morale problems were leading to high turnover in the department.

However, records obtained by The Day show that during Ackley's tenure, four officers have retired, two were terminated, two resigned during an internal investigation and two resigned to work for different state departments.

Ackley and O'Mara said they do not view the relationship as an adversarial one.

"I don't see this as us versus them," Ackley said. "We've got to do what's best for the people, the officers and community together. We have to try to evaluate issues from all sides."

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