East Lyme, Old Lyme discuss creating joint police force

East Lyme and Old Lyme officials have announced that they are discussing the possibility of creating one police force that could serve both towns in the future — and potentially become a model for other communities.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the conversations between the towns' first selectmen about collaborating on police services are "very preliminary" but the officials "have a responsibility to see where collaboration could lead us."

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said town officials always are looking for ways to collaborate with other towns and deliver municipal services efficiently while also improving them.

If the towns ultimately go forward with the plan, it could be the first time in Connecticut when a community moves to create a police department where one police chief serves two towns, said East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein.

With East Lyme's move to an independent police force, Reemsnyder said she approached East Lyme to have conversations about potential collaboration with Old Lyme, which is currently a Resident State Trooper town.

East Lyme, which has 23 full-time police officers and one part-time police officer, established its own department on July 1.

Reemsnyder said the two towns had discussed collaboration in the past, but it didn't make sense because they belonged to two different state police troops. Now, she said, collaboration could make good sense and allow the towns to improve their police services, and cost would also likely be a factor.

Nickerson said East Lyme and Old Lyme share similar policing needs, as they are both residential, shoreline communities with similar demographics and a busy interstate. Reemsnyder pointed out that the two towns are part of the same Regional Emergency Planning Team and provide mutual aid services. The towns also have collaborated in the past, along with Salem and Montville, to create a regional probate court.

The police collaboration could mean more officers directly available at a time when both towns have more policing needs, said Reemsnyder, who served on the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission.

Old Lyme's current police resources consist of a resident state trooper, one part-time officer and six full-time officers, with one out on disability leave.

A local department with East Lyme could provide "24/7" police coverage, whereas now Old Lyme has a seven-hour gap overnight during which it must rely on state police for coverage, she said. She said the town also has a very busy beach area that demands a lot of police attention. A combined department additionally could provide more consistency and a focus of community policing under a professional full-time chief, she said.

Several months ago, the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen had explored a proposal to have a policing model with two resident troopers and four officers. Reemsnyder said the town decided to keep the one resident trooper and six police officer program, because that model provided more officers.

As first selectwoman, Reemsnyder said she also has the title of chief of police and works on ensuring there is adequate police coverage during the busy months and is overseeing the transition period for a new resident state trooper. But she said she doesn't have the same training for that role as a person who has focused a career on police services.

She said the trooper program has been good for Old Lyme, but if the local department is a better fit, the town has an obligation to look at it.

Conversations about potential benefits to each town still are in early stages, but "on paper there seems to be a mutual benefit, Nickerson said.

"Connecticut is in a tough economic place and in order to get out of this place we're in, towns need to be more efficient and towns do need to come together and share services, share overhead, share department head managers, and this is one way we're doing it," he said.

Reemsnyder said she will continue conversations with Old Lyme's Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance and thanked East Lyme for being open to this conversation. 

The towns still would need to figure out potential costs, logistics and what the makeup of the force could look like. Currently, the East Lyme Police Commission oversees the police chief, so the chain of command for a combined department also would need to be determined. Reemsnyder said there is no specific timeframe but any decision would include public input.

Nickerson said if the combined force comes to fruition, the towns then would look at a potential combined facility.

Finkelstein said there's a "synergy" on the geographical layouts of both towns and abilities for them to work together, so he thinks it's a natural conversation to have.

"We’re taking a good hard look at how operationally this could function," Finkelstein said. "We’re looking at the positives and negatives. We’re looking at really every piece of how conceptually this would come together, and ultimately it's just about providing the best police product to the citizens of both towns as possible."

k.drelich@theday.com

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