New London police lose two officers to injuries

New London — Two female New London police officers with 24 years of combined service — sidelined from regular street patrols because of injuries sustained on the job — are retiring on disability May 1.

Sgt. Kristy Christina, 41, and Officer Patricia Kehler, 49, both of whom were forced to take time off for surgeries over the past several years, currently are restricted to administrative duty because of lingering injuries.

The loss of the two officers, combined with another officer scheduled to retire this month, drops the number of sworn officers at the department to 71, including the three officers hired by the city this week. It also reduces the number of female officers to four.

New London police Capt. Brian Wright said that, as with any law enforcement recruitment campaign, “improvements can be made” in attempts to diversify the department. “Currently we are developing a strategic marketing plan and career orientations to increase female and minority interest/participation,” he said in an email on Friday.

The Law Enforcement Council of Connecticut manages the testing process and works with the city personnel division in the hiring process. New London Police Chief Peter Reichard said there are few female applicants.

The upcoming retirements will move the department further away from the goal of 80 officers, a number required by a city ordinance approved by the City Council in 2015.

Mayor Michael Passero has included funding for two additional officers in his recommended city budget. Reichard said he would have to wait to find out if the funding remains in place when the budget is approved by City Council.

Reichard said Christina and Kehler have served the city and department with distinction.

“Their commitment to the New London community has been consistently evident throughout their careers with the NLPD,” Reichard said. “I am grateful for the contribution these officers have made towards strengthening this agency and for the impact each has made on improving of the quality of life for the citizens of New London.”

The City Council this week approved a settlement agreement hashed out between the police union and city administration.

The officers’ pension is processed through the Connecticut's Municipal Employees Retirement System, a public pension plan provided by the state for participating municipalities. New London Risk Manager Paul Gills said council approval was needed to cover a disparity in funding from the state that would have created “undue financial hardship” for the officers.

Gills said funding from the city, essentially a loan, will bridge an economic gap for up to 12 months. He said the officers would be paid retroactively by the state and the city would be reimbursed. A dollar amount was not immediately available.

Police Union President Todd Lynch credited the police and city administrations “stepping up to do the right thing.” Lynch said Kehler and Christina were good officers and even better human beings.

“They are going to be missed,” Lynch said. “You come to work every day and you just hope to get to the end of shift and back home unharmed. That’s the type of job we have. They can no longer perform their duties because of what happened on their shift. God willing, they can still go home to their families.”

The injuries to the officers can be traced back to a Feb. 20, 2017, late night skirmish with a woman living in a residential program of Sound Community Services.

Police, including Kehler and Christina, were dispatched to report of a suicidal woman. Police reports show the woman was not happy about the arrival of police, swore at them and fled out a back door.

Christina said she caught up with the woman and grabbed her by the sweatshirt but was unable to calm the woman, who “began to swing at me with closed fists, yelling and swearing at me,” the report shows.

The woman outweighed Christina by 100 pounds and continued to try and punch her. Even with help from a second officer, the woman struggled and prevented officers from getting her into handcuffs.

It eventually took four officers to secure the woman, who used her weight against the officers.

Kehler, in her report, said she had responded to calls for backup and found Christina, another officer and the woman on the ground off Montauk Avenue. Kehler was kicked in the leg as she was walking toward the cruiser.

At least four officers sustained injuries in the incident.

Gills said while the injuries of Kehler and Christina might not have seemed severe at the time, “two years later they’ve had multiple surgeries and reached maximum medical improvement that precludes them from fulfilling essential functions of a police officer.”

Christina joined the New London Police Department in April 2000 and was promoted to the rank of sergeant in 2010. She has served in the uniformed division, support services and investigative services, where she was the detective sergeant. Kehler joined the force in March 2006 and served as a motorcycle officer, a school resource officer and in the vice and intelligence unit. They could not be reached for comment for this report.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's note: This version corrects the number of female officers on the force.

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