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New London residents call for 'defunding,' mayor defends police

New London — In the face of calls to "defund police," Mayor Michael Passero on Monday gave what amounted to a public defense of current police numbers.

Two dozen people delivered emotional pleas to the City Council on Monday, asking that money be shifted to places like social services, education and other resources to benefit the city's Black and poor residents.

The defund movement is part of the larger criminal justice reform debate playing out across the country and urges the reallocation of police funding to community resources. Locally, the activist group Hearing Youth Voices continues to gather signatures for a host of demands, including that 35% of the $12.1 million police budget be shifted.

The public outpouring came on the same night the council voted to accept $2.2 million in federal grant funds to fund six new police positions over three years without cost to the city. The city additionally has committed to hiring two additional officers on its own.

The council vote to approve the funding did not come without debate and questions about the need for the existing city ordinance that mandates an 80-officer minimum. The city has not hit that mark since the ordinance was enacted in 2014, and the department now stands at 69 officers.

A separate resolution, which passed unanimously Monday, declared racism a public health crisis in the city.

Passero weighed in on the defunding issue, saying, "I really think we're robbing Peter to pay Paul to do that." He said the city could not afford to lose officers and also expect to maintain a "robust public safety effort in this city."

"I share the desire to fund the human needs in this city. I just don't think that we should be beating ourselves up over it," Passero said. "I applaud the focus on looking at the culture of how we police, making sure we're policing the way we want to be policed here in New London. I'm engaged in that process. And I'm thankful for the attention the movement is bringing upon that process. I don't want to sacrifice the progress we've made here of building a safe community. We can make our community an anti-racist community and still keep it safe."

Speaker after speaker at Monday's meeting rallied around the calls to defund. Some spoke and others had letters read by council members.

"Policing is built on the idea that the best way to protect our community is through punishment," Ellanora Lerner said in a letter. "This framework must be rethought to truly create communities that are not only safe but uplifting to all people."

The Rev. Ranjit Mathews, rector at St. James Episcopal Church, in his letter called for reallocation of funding. "It's relatively easy to say Black Lives Matter or to put up a placard in the middle of an uprising, yet what is harder to do, but what is required in this moment, is for the city to truly show up for all of our children and all of our residents," he said. "The one very concrete way to do that is investing in our educational system. We have a moment now to be better for our children and all of our citizens."

Kris Wraight, a member of the Police Community Relations Committee, was more forceful, saying the mayor and council had failed to take action. "Police departments all over the country are defunding because people realize that no matter how great an individual officer may be, the culture was never about protecting and serving Black people. We cannot reform a system born out of white supremacy," she said.

Council President Pro Tempore Alma Nartatez noted that the six officers to be hired are likely to serve as replacements for retiring officers. More than a dozen officers are eligible to retire over the next year.

Councilors agreed they wanted to revisit what many consider to be an arbitrary 80-officer mandate enacted by a previous council led by Passero when he was a councilor. At the time, The Day reported the council was attempting to maintain staffing amid dwindling numbers at the department and had referred to a 2007 study that had recommended between 81 and 118 officers.

"Is there any rhyme or reason for the current ordinance we have now?" Councilor Curtis Goodwin said. "What's proper policing? What's a necessity..."

Councilor James Burke said he thought a new report is needed, "especially based on the national and local conversation we're having about police reform."

Burke voted against the funding request for the six new officers, in part in hopes of tying the approval to a commitment for a new study. "We dream of a system where when you dial 911 we have more options to give than firetruck, ambulance or uniformed police officer," he said.

Councilor John Satti, a retired former probation officer, remained steadfast in his support for police. "I believe that our officers deserve this. They do a great job protecting our community and we as a council need to support the great work they do," he said.

The statement elicited a response from council President Efrain Dominguez. "I respect what you're saying, Councilor Satti, but we have had some issues in the police department for years so I can't really agree with you that all cops in New London are perfect. There has not been accountability across the board," he said.

Police union President Todd Lynch, after Monday's meeting, called Dominguez's statement "reckless" and Burke's vote against the police funding evidence "he's turned his back on the police department."

Lynch said the police officers in the city are under fire of late and have been waiting for a public show of support from the council in the face of what he called "anti-police rhetoric," led by what he referred to as "a loud minority."

Lynch thanked the council for supporting the hiring of new officers but said morale has suffered at the department of late.

"The feeling on our part is they don't care about the men and women of the New London Police Department," he said.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that John Satti is a former probation officer.

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