New London's sharp police decline a concern
In his platform, "A Vision for New London," released during his successful run for mayor in the 2011 election, Daryl Justin Finizio wrote, "Our parks, schools, and streets must be safe and clean, or revitalization efforts and economic empowerment plans will prove futile."
While campaigning he said he would work to boost police staffing to 102 officers. Instead, his administration has overseen a major downsizing of the force. Department staffing peaked at 99 officers in 2011. Interviewed this past week, Mayor Finizio said the number of officers has dropped to 70. The number includes supervisors, including the chief and deputy chief. Patrol officers number in the mid-40s.
In the mayor's defense, he inherited a city with fiscal problems far more serious than had been disclosed. Consecutive years of deficit spending in the final years under the former city manager system had exhausted the city's fund balance, its fiscal safety net. It was apparent New London was providing a level of services it could not afford.
Even now, after the council cut another $900,000 from the police budget and inflicted sizeable cuts in Public Works ($105,000) and other departments as well, a group of voters has petitioned for an Aug. 6 referendum to block a small, 0.9 mill-rate tax increase. A city cannot have adequate police coverage without paying for it.
The sharp decline appears caused by two things.
First, the city's fiscal problems raised the specter of layoffs and that sent officers looking for jobs elsewhere. So many left, layoffs have proved unnecessary.
Second, it is apparent that the department is suffering from morale problems under the leadership of Chief Margaret Ackley and because of poisoned relations between the union leadership and the administration. Sick of it, officers have chosen to go elsewhere.
In a story in today's edition, Staff Writer Greg Smith notes that in recent years six former officers went to the Norwich force, three were recently sworn-in as Waterford policemen and several moved on to become state troopers. While any department experiences turnover, the departures from New London have been excessive and expensive. The city pays to train the police officers and then they leave to benefit another municipality.
Given that the cuts in state municipal aid were not nearly as steep as predicted when Mayor Finizio prepared his current budget, and given the labor savings due to the departure of officers, the administration should move to begin rebuilding the ranks. The mayor says that is his preference, but he must first be assured the city has the fiscal ability.
Mayor Finizio should act sooner than later, even if it means reallocating resources.
The administration also has to find a way to rebuild morale or exits will continue. A change in police leadership appears necessary.
Mayor Finizio, in making the argument that current force levels are adequate, though not ideal, points to declining crime statistics in the city. He also credits a major drug bust in the region for reducing criminal activity.
All fine and well, but to keep those statistics trending in the right direction the city will need cops, perhaps not as many as it once thought it could afford, but more than now patrol its streets. As for drug roundups, they always prove a temporary respite, with new hoodlums eventually arriving to fill the vacuum created by mass arrests.
The sharp decline in police patrols can generate distrust and suspicion. The mayor's critics, pointing to lack of information coming out of the department, say his administration is purposely downplaying crime in the city. He calls the contention ridiculous.
The fact is the department has a history that predates the mayor of acting charily in its approach to releasing information. Reporters checking for news have long been handed an arrest log, not a list of incident reports. Mayor Finizio, who campaigned on transparent government, should explore with the police administration a more forthcoming approach to disclosing criminal activity in the city. After all, the public can be the eyes and ears of the police, increasingly important when staffing is low.
Mayor Finizio, when a candidate, was right, maintaining public safety is paramount to driving revitalization. It must remain a priority, even in tough fiscal times.
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