Independent police department good for East Lyme

East Lyme, which has tossed around the idea of an independent police department in the past, has matured into a busier, more commercial, more populous town in which a new ordinance creating such a department makes great sense.

Earlier this month, after extensive study and numbers-crunching, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously for an ordinance that will establish a Board of Police Commissioners. Its first responsibility will be to hire a police chief and set policies for an independent police department.

The timing for developing a 21st-century police force is excellent. Having seen the challenges faced by police officers across the country in recent years, the town has a chance to build on the capable work done locally under the Resident State Trooper program and expand its vision for law enforcement.

East Lyme's 22 officers do not routinely deal with the same level of problems as an urban police department, but no community remains free of drug-related crimes and incidents. Interstate 95 brings people into town from virtually anywhere, and some of those people have been burglars and drug dealers. And sometimes municipalities are called into joint enforcement actions that require first-rate preparation.

Nor have suburban towns been free of racial confrontations over incidents that may have seemed minor at first. Every police department needs to be trained in the latest methods of handling sensitive situations.

The resident trooper program has worked well for the town for decades. It was a great asset in the days when the first selectman, officially the chief of police, oversaw a force of "constables" operating under state police leadership.

But times and the town have changed. The villages of Niantic and Flanders and the once-seasonal beach areas have blended into a community that thinks of itself more as one town than an array of neighborhoods. Where farming once dominated the north end of town, and the seaside village of Niantic the south end, now most sections are year-round residential, commercial or both. The coming of the mixed-use Gateway Commons will accelerate that trend.

The larger trend is also toward independent departments. The state has been consistently raising the charge to towns for participation in the resident trooper program, partly to encourage municipalities to operate their own police forces. Ledyard, previously under an arrangment much like East Lyme's, moved to an independent force in 2015 and seems to be making good progress.

Despite the reasons for a town to make the move, it's not something that can always happen on the first try. Earlier this year The Day argued against an independent police force when citizens of Montville faced the same issue. Montville is a neighbor of East Lyme, has about the same number of residents, and perhaps an even greater incentive in that it hosts one of the region's two large casinos and its visitors.

The difference was that in Montville numerous citizens had clear and deep-rooted reasons, including hesitancy about the costs, for opposing the project. It was eventually defeated in a referendum. 

In East Lyme, on the other hand, no organized, vocal opposition has surfaced thus far. This move seems to be what most residents want.

As for governance, an appointed 7-person police commission, including the first selectman, seems like the right way to go. Some residents have proposed electing the commissioners, but the periodic challenges faced by many of the region's small towns in finding candidates for municipal boards suggest that might be less productive than reviewing applications from residents who are committed to the process.

Ultimately the selectmen, who are elected to office, will bear the responsibility for overseeing and shepherding the new commission and the department. That should be plenty of elective oversight and keep the overall responsibility in the hands of those who set and administer town policy and finances.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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