New London is hiring firefighters but not cops. Here's why.
New London — With the fire department’s announcement last week that it’s hiring new firefighters, some in the community couldn’t help but wonder: Why not police officers, too?
The answer, it turns out, is relatively simple. The New London Fire Department is budgeted for 64 firefighters and has 59. The city police department, on the other hand, is budgeted for 70 officers and has 69, with the only unfilled post being the recently vacated deputy chief position.
Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the city hasn’t yet honored a 2014 ordinance mandating an 80-officer police department — an ordinance some have thrust into the spotlight in the wake of recent violence in New London.
“My concern has nothing to do with hiring the firemen,” police union President Todd Lynch said Thursday. “I’m not going to pit one emergency service against another. My only concern is why aren’t we hiring police officers?”
According to Mayor Michael Passero, the issue comes back to the City Council. It’s the council that approved only enough money for 70 officers, including the chief and deputy chief, even though police administrators had asked for more.
“I can only hire as many positions as City Council approves,” Passero explained.
For the fire department, the city has started out by advertising for certified firefighters who also are New London residents. It’s quicker when a certified firefighter signs on because he or she doesn’t have to be sent to the academy, Passero explained, and it saves the city the cost of schooling.
Still, Passero said the city likely will end up posting for noncertified New London residents, too.
“The goal is to give city residents an opportunity for these jobs,” he said.
Passero said he’s more than willing to work with the police department to fill vacancies when they arise. The department brought on a “lateral” — an officer who was working with another department — just a few months back, he pointed out.
Indeed, police Chief Peter Reichard said he and city officials have begun discussing how to go about obtaining a new deputy chief. The fire department, it should be noted, operates without one.
But for as long as he has been involved in the budgeting process, Reichard said administrators have asked the City Council to approve funding for 80 officers to no avail.
While records show the force has hired 15 officers since October 2014, it also has lost 14 to retirement or resignation since 2014.
The retirement issue, Reichard said, likely only will get worse. This year, seven officers of varying ranks will become eligible for retirement. In 2019, six more will be added to the list. The next year brings four more, and the trend goes on.
“There are 20-plus officers in the next four years which could up and retire at any given time,” Reichard said. “If we were to lose six, that would be detrimental. That would be a little under 10 percent of the department.”
Reichard said none of this year’s eligible retirees has indicated to him they actually will leave, “but things change.”
He said he plans to ask the City Council to fund 76 officers in the coming fiscal year, a compromise.
In an ideal world, Reichard said, the patrol division would have a supervisor in headquarters, a supervisor on the road, an internal officer handling booking and five cruisers out and about during each of the department’s three shifts.
He said it takes about two and a half bodies to cover a full workweek because of the schedule officers keep. Given that, he explained, it would take 60 officers to cover patrol without the department having to hand out overtime — and that’s just patrol.
Reichard acknowledged that a provision adopted in 2014 to give all officers an extra 12 to 15 days off further complicated staffing efforts. But he said many other city departments operate with a similar schedule.
With an ever-increasing number of calls for service — police responded to more than 70,000 incidents last year, compared to about 40,000 in 2015 — Reichard said his officers are feeling the strain.
“The diminished workforce ... has a large impact on how we police the city,” he said. “If we’re just handling calls for service, we don’t have the ability to go out and interact with people one-on-one.”
Per a clause in the union contract, the fire department is required to have 16 firefighters on at all times. Right now, four groups of 16 staff the department’s three stations: Group 1 works a 24-hour shift, then Group 2 signs on and so on. If fully staffed, firefighters would have one full day on, then three days off.
However, because there are 59 instead of 64 firefighters, many of the shifts are covered using overtime — overtime that, for the fire department, is paid at straight time rather than time-and-a-half.
Passero, a retired city firefighter, described the ongoing hiring as something that happens cyclically as groups of firefighters retire. In the past three years, records show, 10 people have retired from the department while eight have been hired.
Fire Chief Henry Kydd noted that, were it not for a grant his department obtained, it likely wouldn’t be hiring despite the vacancies.
The grant, Kydd explained, is called Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response, or SAFER, and is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Records show it’s for almost $490,000.
According to Kydd, the grant will pay for 75 percent of the salaries of three firefighters for two years, then 35 percent during the third. At the end of the three-year period, the city will begin paying the three salaries in full.
“It’s unfortunate that FEMA doesn’t have the same type of program for the police,” Kydd said.
As for the number 16, Kydd said it was chosen in light of the tenets firefighters consider when responding to a blaze: life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation.
“When we get a fire ... there’s a slew of tactical considerations that eat up manpower quickly,” he said. “We try to be as safe as we can.”
The police department’s current staffing level of 69 is a marked improvement over its low of about 58 officers. Still, it’s nowhere near the more than 90 officers the force once boasted.
“We lost the marine patrol,” Lynch said. “We lost four dog teams. ... We lost the youth division, an anti-violence team. We’re down a detective."
“It doesn’t mean we lost the work,” he continued. “We just lost the bodies to do the work.”
Lynch called on the city to be more consistent: If it’s going to enforce snow-removal ordinances, he said, it should enforce the 80-officer ordinance, too.
Passero, who authored the ordinance while he was on the City Council, said the city still plans to work toward fulfilling it. That said, he described the number 80 as “a compromise” borne out of multiple studies into how many cops a city like New London should have. At the time, when officers were leaving New London in droves, he said it was more important to get something into writing than to bicker over the precise number.
The attrition, he noted, has all but stopped.
“The police force does a professional job and has kept the city safe when the ranks were much lower,” Passero said. “The City Council could say, ‘We’re going to raise taxes and hire 20 cops.’ But the budget is always a tough thing and resources have to be distributed amongst all the needs.”
BY THE NUMBERS
BY THE NUMBERS
Staff (secretaries not included)
Starting salaries (approximate)
Police: $12 million
Fire: $9 million
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