Put summer festivals on agenda now
The street festival season is pretty much a wrap for 2022, but tensions between New London’s police union and city officials concerning what constitutes appropriate public safety staffing levels at these outdoor events continue to percolate.
Sailfest, the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival and the monthly Eat in the Street events attracted plenty of visitors this summer who were happy to be having fun without tight pandemic restrictions in place. The festivals filled the New London waterfront with food trucks, music, vendors and children’s activities, and lit the sky with fireworks.
While the events were a success by many measures, the city’s police union remains steadfast in its contention that the three-day Sailfest, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in the past, stretches the short-handed department way too thin. “We need to start drawing a line in the sand about our limitations,” city police union president Lt. Josh Bergeson told The Day last week when asked his thoughts about preparing for the 2023 season.
There’s little doubt the union’s stubborn stance that Sailfest must be slashed in size and duration could make it difficult, maybe even impossible, to work out any compromises about how best to ensure public safety in 2023. Still, we believe the best hope of increasing civility between disgruntled cops and city officials entails scheduling conversations between the sides now, before both the weather and tempers again heat up further next May.
To facilitate the possibility of productive discussions, we also call upon the police union to reduce the rhetoric and its inflammatory actions. The March 2022 union letter calling for Sailfest’s cancellation because of its contention there are not enough police officers to appropriately ensure public safety grabbed attention, but ignored the hours of planning and collaboration with other agencies enlisted to help staff the important summertime event. The event has occurred when the ranks of the NLPD have been both larger, and smaller. This summer, the event went on without a hitch and public safety was ensured.
Also, the union’s late summer issuance of a coin that compared Sailfest to a dumpster fire only served to rightfully anger the many who work tirelessly to bring crowds - and the economic boost that accompany those crowds - to downtown. In addition, the coin, which Bergeson called a morale booster similar to the hats, T-shirts and member trips the union has paid for in the past, was troubling because it appeared to be issued by the department instead of the union, incorporated the Sailfest logo without permission and included initials one union member told The Day stood for “Barbara Neff Carnival.” While Bergeson said the coin was not meant to be an insult, it’s difficult to understand how the union leadership thought it would not be taken as denigrating to Neff, who is executive director of the Downtown New London Association and long-time organizer of many successful Sailfests, and others who work to bring the much-needed economic boosts to downtown New London.
On the other side of the debate, city officials also should carefully consider and seek to find solutions to some of the challenges the union is airing. It’s clear many union members feel their concerns have not been taken seriously, which only serves to increase tensions.
Bergeson said the department has many fewer officers than it once did and while he acknowledges the city has made concerted efforts to recruit new officers at a time when competition for them is fierce, he also contends that recruitment is only one part of the battle. Retention also is difficult, he said, when New London demands more overtime work than do many nearby departments. Bergeson said New London officers who have already logged 16 to 20 hours of continuous work are sometimes ordered back on the job because of personnel shortages.
Police shortages are now commonplace throughout the country as the public’s concern over police use of force, especially in minority communities, increases. But many communities also continue to sponsor successful large events. Are there strategies other communities have employed that could be adapted and useful to New London? That seems to be a question worthy of some careful research.
Only by beginning work now - and only with the cooperation of all sides concerned - is there a possibility there will be less acrimony and bombast on the part of the city’s police officers by the time the 2023 festival season kicks off.