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Real police reform harder than axing symbolic number

The decision by the New London City Council to repeal a seven-year-old ordinance mandating a minimum of 80 police officers is a symbolic gesture unlikely to satisfy anyone. But, then again, the ordinance was largely symbolic to begin with.

Back in 2014, City Councilor Michael Passero, who is now Mayor Passero, was alarmed by the shrinking ranks of city police, down to 65 officers at the time. He pushed for, and the council ultimately passed, the 80-minimum ordinance, based on a prior study which recommended the department maintain at least that many officers.

Yet council members at the time, including Passero, agreed it was really only a goal because there was no way the city, which was going through a particularly difficult fiscal stretch, was going to be able to suddenly hire enough officers to meet the standard.

But as a goal it has gradually moved the arrow toward increased staffing, with the number of sworn officers now at 73.

Flash forward to a time of changed perspectives and calls for police reforms in the wake of the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minnesota police officer as other officers kneeled aside him, and following other high-profile cases in which Black suspects died in police custody due to excessive and unnecessary force.

Some, including substantial numbers here in New London, say one needed reform is to “defund police.”Defund advocates call for reallocating resources now devoted to policing to instead support efforts to address societal ills, including improved education, increased social services to deal with issues of mental illness and homelessness, and a greater emphasis on reform than punishment.

It was in this spirit, and under that pressure, that the council voted 6-1 to give a heave-ho to the old mandate, with Council President Efrain Dominguez Jr. and councilors Alma D. Nartatez, Kevin L. Booker Jr., James Burke, Reona M. Dyess and Curtis K. Goodwin voting in favor, and John D. Satti against.

Opposing the repeal, but knowing he faces a certain override, Passero said he plans to let the decision stand, but without his signature — another symbolic gesture.

The vote is likely to be demoralizing to city police, and needlessly so. The council controls the purse strings and approves the budget. That includes setting the police ranks, whether the 80-staffing ordinance remained or not. But by putting a slash through that number the council has picked sides, and it’s not the side of police.

On the other hand, those who want to defund police will not be satisfied with symbolic gestures, they want real cuts. That appears unlikely on Passero’s watch and, in any event, would be a bad idea.

Reforming police does not mean arbitrarily reducing the number of police officers and endangering public safety in the process. No convincing argument has been put forth that New London police are overstaffed.

Reforming police means improving training to address biases that officers may not even recognize. It means rooting out bad cops who abuse their authority and bring their prejudices to the job. It means working toward police departments that are part of the community — all of the community — and not seen as an outside force imposing its will.

Mayor Passero has the right perspective in contending that the city can maintain adequate staffing for police, while striving to improve the department and addressing other societal challenges. It is not a zero-sum matter.

To that end, he appointed the Public Safety Policy Review Committee when BLM protestors demanded change. It has issued ideas ranging from creation of a civilian review board, to better collaboration between police and social service agencies, to more aggressive recruitment of minority prospects, to taking a tough line against a police union website that inappropriately targets department critics.

It did not call for reducing the size of the department.

In a recent op-ed in this newspaper, Jeanne Milstein, the New London director of Human Services, called for the CARES model (Coordinated Access, Resources, Engagement and Support), which has been used with success in addressing opioid addiction as a social and medical issue, not a criminal one, to be adapted to assist police when a mental-health issue is at the root of a police call.

The challenge for the Passero administration will be to move from concept to implementation, gaining police support in the process and reducing incidences that escalate out of control and end tragically. It’s about more than numbers, symbolic or otherwise.

 

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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