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New London - The City Council on Monday bucked a legal opinion by the city's law director and unanimously passed an ordinance that requires the police department to maintain four police dog teams.
The decision came following a string of comments from members of the public in support of increasing the size of the department's K-9 unit and against the wishes of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who said the union has conducted a public media blitz on the matter instead of taking the request to contract negotiations.
He called the ordinance "an infringement on the charter authority of the mayor."
But many people on Monday spoke of the need for dogs not only to help track suspects and search buildings, but also to protect officers.
Dennis Downing, a Republican candidate for the council, warned those who voted against the ordinance that in the event of an officer's injury or death, "it's going to be on your heads."
Several dozen people bearing signs in support of the K-9 units stood outside City Hall waving signs prior to the meeting and applauded each time someone spoke in favor of increasing the size of the unit.
Union President Todd Lynch and his dog Jasper are the lone working K-9 team in the city. One bloodhound, Bessie, waits to be paired with an officer.
City Attorney Jeffrey T. Londregan, in a written opinion, said the ordinance violates a provision of the charter because it attempts to dictate how the police department should operate and what assets it must maintain.
Council President Michael Passero, however, said the ordinance was specifically drafted so as to not interfere in the administration of the police department. Council member Adam Sprecace agreed, saying, "I don't believe we're overstepping our bounds…"
"We do have a demonstrated need for it," Sprecace said. "When it's operated properly, I think it does everyone in the city a service."
"You're under no obligation to follow my legal advice," Londregan said Monday. "I can only advise you about my opinion."
Five of the seven council members spoke in favor of the ordinance, with council members Wade A. Hyslop Jr. and Donald Macrino speaking against.
Macrino said he wanted time to consider the need for more dogs and trusted the law director's ruling.
Hyslop said he still had concerns and some reservations about past actions of some officers and perhaps the need for sensitivity training. He also wondered about how representative the people at the meeting were compared to the city as a whole. Some people, he said, might be too intimidated to show up at a council meeting.
Neither, however, objected when it came time for a vote.
Finizio said that many officers and even Deputy Chief Peter Reichard did not agree the K-9 units are needed and some officers thought Tasers, more officers and things like vehicle maintenance all rank higher in terms of priority.
"There is zero need for this program in the city of New London," Finizio said.
Finizio said that cuts to the police department over the past two years approved by the council equaled $2.3 million and the city was better served by using the money to start the hiring process to make up for all of the officers who have left over the past several years.
"Why four? Why not three or two?" Finizio asked. "This ordinance is untimely. This ordinance is unnecessary."