Police union: Manpower issues making New London less safe

New London — With summer in full swing and contract negotiations underway, the city police union again is calling attention to “critical manpower issues” it says increase officers’ likelihood of injury and make the city less safe.

Speaking by phone Wednesday, union President Todd Lynch said the department’s low staffing — it hasn’t yet hit the 80-officer minimum mandated by a 2014 city ordinance — routinely affects him. An afternoon patrol shift officer, he said he finds himself being asked to stay until 3 a.m. and sometimes 7 a.m. when his shift is supposed to end at 11 p.m.

“You’re not getting the same effort on a double shift as you would with a fresh cop,” Lynch said. “You’re tired. You don’t want to be there. You might have only packed one meal. You can’t pick up your kid.”

“At what point is overtime worse than hiring someone,” Lynch asked. “Why don’t you hire more people?”

Right now, acting Chief Peter Reichard said the department has filled 68 of its 70 funded positions. The open police chief job, for which the city has advertised, is one vacancy. The other came from an officer who left on her own this spring. Reichard said the department is working to fill that position, too.

Reichard said several circumstances can lead his department to “order in” officers, or force them to be on the clock. It’s a practice that fluctuates, he said — not one that’s continually getting worse.

When officers are on vacation, on injury or military leave or at state-mandated training, management looks to other shifts to fill the holes, he said.

And, when summer brings an uptick in the number of calls police are taking, the department attempts to pad problematic areas or time slots with extra officers.

Take this past weekend, for example. According to police logs, callers reported shots had been fired near the intersection of State Street and Eugene O’Neill Drive about 12:30 a.m. Saturday. Reichard said responding officers located some ballistic evidence and a vehicle that had been struck, but found no victims.

Lynch described the incident as a “brazen shootout” in the center of the city and said the shift was stretched thin when domestic violence and overdose calls came in around the same time.

“These crimes happen in part because there are not enough cops on the street,” Lynch said.

Just a day later, there was another early morning shooting near the end of Ashcraft Road. This time, responders found a victim with two gunshot wounds and took him to the hospital. The victim has been treated and released.

Both cases remain under investigation.

“We try not to order in, but public safety is imperative,” Reichard said. “We have to put a safe number of officers on the roads, so at times we have no choice.”

According to Lynch, such backfilling creates a host of fatigue-related issues, from injury-prone and slowly-reacting officers to banged-up cruisers.

Reichard said burnout can be an issue, too.

“If we had the opportunity to add additional resources, I’d be all for it,” he said. “But you know the condition the state’s in, the condition the city’s in.”

In the August update it posted online, the police union said the weekend of July 15 alone brought 268 hours of overtime.

Mayor Michael Passero said such overtime numbers are misleading. They can include third-party jobs that officers volunteer for, he explained, such as beach patrol or private construction work. That’s money the city later recoups from the contractors.

In general, Reichard said, overtime numbers also include speeding enforcement that’s partially grant-funded as well as the hours of midnight shift officers who appear in daytime court proceedings. Approved union business off days also contribute to the overtime totals.

A key player in getting the 80-officer ordinance passed, Passero on Thursday reaffirmed his support for one day boosting the department’s staff to that level.

“The goal was to work our way there faster than this,” he acknowledged.

But with the city planning for a loss of at least $2.5 million in state aid, he said, it wasn’t feasible to fund any additional officers this year.

As they worked on the budget that ultimately passed in May, Passero said officials made cuts to all city departments and identified overtime as an area where they need to “find efficiencies.”

He noted that city taxpayers will be funding $1 million of the school district’s budget because of a loss in state Educational Cost Sharing funds to the city. Even so, the district will be forced to work with about $700,000 less than it did in the previous fiscal year.

Passero said that the police department, at almost $12 million, has the biggest operating budget on the city side. In the most recently approved police union contract, he added, negotiators worked in a provision that gave all officers an extra 12 to 15 days off per year. That contract lapsed on June 30.

l.boyle@theday.com

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