Published March 11. 2014 5:00PM Updated March 11. 2014 5:33PM
New London — The Administration Committee of the City Council voted 2-1 Monday in favor of an ordinance that would require a minimum of 80 officers at the police department.
Councilors said they recognized that the addition of an estimated 20 new officers at a cost of $2 million is not immediately feasible but hoped for an incremental rise in staffing levels in the coming years. The matter moves next to the full council for consideration.
“Because of budget constraints, this is a long-term goal to bring staffing levels up,” said City Council member Michael Tranchida. “Hopefully in the new fiscal year we can bring on board anywhere between two to five officers.”
Tranchida, chairman of the Administration Committee, voted in favor of the ordinance with Council President Wade Hyslop. Councilor Anthony Nolan, a police officer, voted against.
Nolan said at Monday’s meeting he liked the idea of additional officers but balked at the cost, saying, “We have to ask the community, at what cost do they want more officers.”
The department currently has a staff of 65 sworn officers, down more than one-third from where it was a few years ago. The drop has led to more overtime and longer shifts for remaining officers, along with some frustration from business owners about a lack of police presence in the downtown area. Serious crime was also up by 8 percent in 2013, with robberies and burglaries at 10-year highs.
Deputy Chief Peter Reichard said he is budgeting for a possible loss of five additional officers in the coming fiscal year because of the number of officers eligible for retirement. He would need authorization from the mayor’s office, he said, before advertising any job openings.
Based on resources at the department, such as field training officers needed for new recruits, Reichard said between three and five new officers are all they could likely handle at one time.
Councilor Michael Passero, who had initially proposed the ordinance, said the city had a responsibility to make public safety a top priority in the budget.
“We have to make sure the budget provides for at least the number of new officers that we can reasonably hire within the next year,” Passero said. “We have to rely on administration on how many we could hire.”
While pleased by approval of the ordinance, Passero said he remained skeptical of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio’s ability to follow through on mandates passed by the council, citing last year’s council vote to maintain a four-dog K-9 unit.
“I haven’t seen any movement on that,” Passero said.
Finizio has publicly announced his support for a minimum staffing level of 80 officers and a four-dog K-9 unit.
Even with full council approval, it remains unclear how soon the police department is likely to see a new hire.
It takes about a year from hire date before a new police officer makes it through the police academy and field training and is finally able to patrol city streets. Reichard said he believed the city still had the ability to attract certified officers, a less costly and less time-consuming option to hiring a new, untrained officer.
Councilor Erica Richardson said most of the council appeared to be in agreement about the need for more officers but did not want to vote on a “wish list” without the ability to maintain annual funding. She said the city needed to find additional sources of revenue.
Councilor Martin Olsen, citing the numerous officers who have left for other departments over the past several years, asked the broader question of, “What are we doing to stem the tide?”
“We are not doing anything to replace the ones who have left,” Olsen said.
The local police union has claimed that low morale stemming from leadership under Police Chief Margaret Ackley is to blame for the loss of officers, many of whom the city paid to have trained. The department has also undergone threats of layoffs in recent years, and a contract is still in the process of being negotiated.
When asked by Nolan about the $500,000 allocated by the last council to hire new officers, Finance Director Jeffrey Smith said the money had been used to offset budget shortfalls.