Police staff shortage shouldn't jeopardize Sailfest safety
With COVID-19 restrictions all but gone and the traditional Memorial Day weekend start of the summer season little more than a week away, New London’s city officials and downtown business owners are hoping that the return of warm weather and waterfront street festivals will bring a much-needed economic boost to the Whaling City.
The grand dame of New London’s summertime festivities — Sailfest — is scheduled in July after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus. The festival, with its perennially popular Thames River fireworks extravaganza, typically attracts 200,000 to 300,000 to the city, requires months of planning and the collaboration of numerous local, state, and federal agencies.
Into this atmosphere of cautious optimism for a successful 2022 season, the New London police union recently dropped a bombshell. The union delivered a letter to city officials in March asking that Sailfest be canceled. “The New London Police Union would like to express to the city and its administration that the police department does not have the staffing to run this event safely,” the letter reads, in part. The letter became public earlier this month and is signed by police union president, Lt. Joshua Bergeson, and union vice-president, David Diogo.
Despite the union’s stance, plans for Sailfest continue to progress and members of the public who enjoy the festival and all its raucous exuberance should not be dissuaded from attending. Among the reasons why is the fact that the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Navy, FBI, Connecticut State Police, American Red Cross, U.S. Coast Guard, and personnel from police and fire departments from numerous jurisdictions outside New London, along with those in the city, all collaborate to help ensure public safety during the event. Another reason is the fact that Sailfest has been successful both in years when the New London Police Department’s ranks were larger, as well as when they were smaller. Yet another reason is that the police union has made similar calls for the event’s cancellation in the past.
The union’s valid concerns about current staffing levels also are not falling on deaf ears with city officials. In 2019, when Sailfest last occurred, the department’s ranks stood at nearly 80 and now have sunk to 59 with two poised to retire as of July 1, and another two out with long-term injuries.
In light of this, recruiting efforts are robust and ongoing. Still, the pool of police applicants for departments in all jurisdictions has shrunk in recent years. Bergeson said a recent written test for police hopefuls attracted just 20 takers when such testing sessions once were jammed with 200 or more applicants.
The difficulties in attracting a plentiful number of qualified applicants may not decrease until the police in general regain the public’s trust, which has been battered in recent years by numerous high-profile cases in which police use of force, especially in minority communities, has been called into question.
In New London, at least some members of the police department also no doubt remain bitter about a March 2021 City Council decision to repeal a police minimum staffing ordinance in the city. But the public resoundingly reversed that decision at an August 2021 referendum and the 2014 ordinance mandating a minimum of 80 officers remains in force, even if successfully boosting police ranks remains elusive. In addition, a new three-year contract between the police union and the city was successfully negotiated in the winter.
While the city struggles to reach the police staffing level called for in the ordinance, the reality is there is no magic number nor one-size-fits-all-scenarios when it comes to determining appropriate police department sizes. A 2015 study determined the New London Police Department should have between 60 and 100 officers, a broad range that depends on some subjective factors such as the desired extent of community outreach.
Components such as crime rates, historic staffing levels or overall population numbers — all of which are often used to determine police department sizes in jurisdictions throughout the country — also are not necessarily valid in and of themselves, according to an analysis published some six years ago by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management. That center concluded that a complex data analysis encompassing a host of factors that also would carefully track trends in emergency calls for police assistance, was the best way to determine how large or small a police department needs to be.
Still, both sides in the police staffing level debate in New London have agreed to strive for 80 officers and are working diligently to get there.
There have been instances of violence at some past events, and it's imperative that local, state and federal agencies collaborate to ensure public safety at Sailfest 2022. Considering Sailfest has been successful for more than 40 years, the public should be confident it will remain so this summer.