East Lyme police department 'rebrands' itself as independent, local force

East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein talks with his officers during roll call on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, at the department in East Lyme.  The department officially became independent on July 1, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein talks with his officers during roll call on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, at the department in East Lyme. The department officially became independent on July 1, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

East Lyme — When the town's police department became independent on July 1, not much may appear to have changed from the outside.

The town's police officers wear the same uniforms, drive the same cruisers and work out of the same department on Main Street in Niantic.

But inside, a "rebranding" is underway.

Police officers have embraced the change and are continuing the jobs they have done well, but now to a "different beat," said Chief Michael Finkelstein.

"There's a little bit of an invigoration, a little bit more pep in the step and pride that the organization is going to be much more visible, much more responsive," he said. "I think that's part of the organic, local policing."

Finkelstein said the police department had wonderful resident state troopers and will continue to have a relationship with the state police. But an independent police force provides a more streamlined process in which the local police can more quickly address local situations, work more closely with the community and local officials, and make more of their own investigative decisions.

For example, under the Resident State Trooper program, East Lyme dispatchers would screen all calls and then transfer calls to state police. State police would then screen the calls and dispatch local officers. Under the new system, calls no longer are transferred to another agency, so the department will be able to provide more efficient, quicker service, he said.

Steps to independent force

East Lyme's police force, with 23 full-time police officers and one part-time officer, serves a population of about 19,000 year-round residents that grows in the summertime.

Police and local officials say the town had great resident state troopers, but that, with the growth of the town and police department, it was time to move to an independent policing model.

Administrative Sgt. Michael Macek, who coordinated efforts of the police department's sergeants to research an independent department, said that when the resident trooper program was initiated in East Lyme decades ago, the town had a very small population. Over decades, as the population grew, so did the calls for service and the need for policing.

While the town discussed moving to an independent police force in the past, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said, the town's population and police force had grown to a point that the community needed "hands-on leadership" from someone within the force.

At the same time, the costs of the Resident State Trooper program were rising, and the move to an independent police department was "cost neutral," Nickerson said.

The Board of Selectmen voted in November to take the first step to creating an independent force: the enactment of an ordinance to establish a Police Commission in town that would hire a police chief and supervise the soon-to-be-created independent department.

As part of the move, the town's dispatchers went through training to become part of the police department and handle police calls, in addition to the EMS, fire and ambulance calls, said Police Commission Chairman Daniel Price. The department transitioned from state radio and computer systems to its own systems.

East Lyme and Waterford signed an agreement so the East Lyme Police Department can use the Waterford Police Department's Avery Lane facility for the processing and detention of people arrested by East Lyme police and storage of evidence — tasks formerly handled at the state police barracks in Montville.

The Police Commission, which hired the police chief, will have a supervisory role over the department, Price said. For  example, the chief will compile a budget for the department, which the commission will review and approve and then present to the Board of Selectmen. The Police Commission also now will serve as the town's traffic control authority, rather than the Board of Selectmen. 

Community policing

Officer Matthew Roland, who has 30 years of experience with the East Lyme Police Department, said the change will allow the town's officers, who take pride in having East Lyme be a great place to live and raise children, to flourish.

"Going on our own will enable every officer here to grow," he said. "We'll be able to dedicate 100 percent of our professional expertise to our town, whereas before some investigations would have left the oversight of the East Lyme Police Department and fallen under state police. I think our town residents are going to benefit immensely from having our own police department."

Officer Sean Bresnan, who joined the force three years ago, said he had no complaints with the Resident State Trooper program, but he thinks the independent force will give his supervisors the chance to fulfill their potential and make more decisions on their own. That, in turn, will allow him to lean more on his supervisors, he said.

The eligibility for more grants, more collaboration with other local towns and the potential for the department's growth, could also bring more opportunities for officers, such as promotions, he said. 

With the re-branding, a committee will examine standardizing and modernizing the police uniform, Finkelstein said. The department also will look at the current police cruiser design to see if it should be included in the rebranding initiative. 

Finkelstein said the new independent police force will bring a "more locally based, organic focus on policing." He said the focus will be on strong community policing, and he is encouraging police officers to be proactive and visible in the community and at festivals. He has been introducing himself to different neighborhood groups and community organizations.  

"He is well known in our community as someone who is going to be there. He is very approachable," Nickerson said. "We have a leader on board who is 110 percent committed to being part of this community and being accessible to this community."

Finkelstein said it's important for the police department to work closely with all of the town's emergency services, residents, businesses and other local municipalities, such as Waterford. He described the police as "an arm of the community," with the police force relying on the community for information, and the community relying on the department for policing.

"A police department is not an island," he said. "We're not successful if we're not working with our community and regional partners."

k.drelich@theday.com

Officer Lindsay Cutillo talks with a motorist she pulled over for a possible seat belt violation during patrol on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, on Main Street in East Lyme.  The East Lyme Police Department officially became independent on July 1, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Officer Lindsay Cutillo talks with a motorist she pulled over for a possible seat belt violation during patrol on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, on Main Street in East Lyme. The East Lyme Police Department officially became independent on July 1, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

East Lyme Police Department

East Lyme Police Department

Date of independence: July 1, 2017

Number of officers: 23 full-time police officers, one part-time police officer, plus one full-time and one part-time animal control officer

Service Calls handled by dispatch over July 4th weekend (July 1 through July 4): 291

 

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