New London police chief to reinstate foot patrols, wants more dogs

New London — Police Chief Margaret Ackley is reinstating foot patrols in the downtown area and has asked the council to approve the purchase of two dogs for the department’s K-9 program.

Ackley, who has remained publicly silent since her return from 10 months of paid administrative leave, is expected to appear at a City Council meeting as early as Monday to discuss a funding transfer request for two new dogs.

It is unclear if the walking patrols, with either one or two extra officers working around the clock on different days of the week, have yet been instituted.

The ideas so far are garnering mixed reviews from the police union, city council members and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, with varying levels of concern over manpower issues at the department.

Ackley has requested that a total of $30,000 be transferred from the department’s retirement payout account into the training budget — $20,000 for the purchase of two dogs and $10,000 for associated training equipment. She asked for the resolution to be on Monday’s City Council agenda.

Ackley said the request “seems very reasonable,” since Deputy Chief Peter Reichard advised her that the department is expected to come in $550,000 under budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“Although I have not been to work in nearly a year, I am aware that you passed an ordinance requiring (four) K-9 teams and this is my effort to fill that requirement,” Ackley wrote in an email to City Council members.

Dogs were a hot topic in 2013 when the City Council overrode a mayoral veto to keep the four-dog ordinance in place. Controversy arose when Finizio had reduced the number of K-9 teams at the department from three to one.

There has been no apparent movement to buy new dogs since.

The department now has two dogs on patrol, Jasper, a German shepherd cross-trained in search and rescue and patrol, and Bessie, a tracking bloodhound who found a new handler after her previous partner left for a job with the state police.

Ackley said she intends to purchase a narcotics detection dog and a Giant Schnauzer for patrol. Schnauzers are used in police work and are hypoallergenic. It is not clear, however, why the Schnauzer was chosen. Officer Anthony Nolan, a City Council member, had at one point offered to be Bessie’s handler but found out he was allergic to dogs.

Council member Erica Richardson, chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, welcomed the return of foot patrols.

“It’s summertime. More people are out. We still want to be billed as a safe place to visit,” Richardson said. “We’ve always had walking patrols downtown. Having officers on foot helps interactions with the community. And this is something the community has been asking for — police out of their cars.”

She said she heard a recent story of someone on Bank Street walking back to their car being harassed and then punched in the face by a panhandler.

Richardson said there is, however, a lingering concern about the amount of manpower at the department and just how fast the city continues to hire new officers and reach the 80-officer minimum as mandated by the City Council.  

News of a $550,000 surplus at the department should help ease concerns of the $30,000 transfer for new dog teams, she said. Richardson said she would prefer any new dogs be either bloodhounds or narcotics dogs.

Local police union president Todd Lynch, who is also a dog handler and the department’s K-9 trainer, said he was perplexed by the recent announcements.

He said officers are constantly working double shifts because of the manpower shortage and additional patrols will only serve to further the workload.

“Where is this coming from?” Lynch said. “Is there more crime or is this just punishment? Where is the manpower strength coming from? Why isn’t the chief standing side-by-side with me saying we need more people?”

Lynch said the new initiatives announced by Ackley appear to be part of the ongoing squabble between the chief and mayor.

“We don’t want to be the children caught between the two divorcing parents,” Lynch said. “That’s what we feel like.”

Lynch agreed the department was in need of more dogs, but also questioned Ackley’s motives.

“Ackley’s biggest thing since she’s been back is to get these dogs,” Lynch said. “I’m very happy about that, but those dogs were taboo before she left.”

Finizio issued a written statement in response to questions about the moves by Ackley.

"The Chief is responsible for allocating patrol strength. If the Chief believes that we can meet our service needs while expanding downtown beat patrols, then I am very happy for this development. Nothing does more to create a safe environment in public spaces than good officers walking the beat,” Finizio stated in an email.

Finizio said he wanted to review the request for the K9s with Finance Director Jeff Smith before supporting the initiative.

“There are many financial priorities in the Police Department, first among them adding more officers to the ranks,” Finizio said in an email. “I would need to consult with the Chief and our finance director before commenting further on whether this is an appropriate allocation of our limited financial resources."

Council member Michael Passero, who is challenging Finizio in the upcoming mayoral race, said the $550,000 surplus at the police department caught his attention. He said he wondered why the Council had not yet been informed about the surplus and said he thought it was another example of the lack of transparency by city administration.

He said he was in favor of returning foot patrols to downtown but would like to be assured there were a sufficient number of officers on the force in all areas of the city.

“It’s nice she is recognizing we need walking beats downtown,” Passero said. “I’d like to know if (Ackley) thinks she has enough police officers to fill that need and all the other needs of the city."

He said “it seems reasonable” that the Ackley is trying to rebuild the K-9 program and would be “interested in hearing that debate.”

"In a community like New London you should have a healthy K-9 program," Passero said.

Ackley said in her email to the council that her hope is to have the new dog teams in service by the end of the summer if the department starts making arrangement to outfit two vehicles and purchase equipment and start training.

Ackley did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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