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New London protest calls for reallocation of police funds

New London — The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in June was just the first victory in what Black Lives Matter demonstrators promise will be a sustained effort to root out racism and social inequities in the city.

“Defund police,” was the rallying cry among the 75 people, mostly youth, who marched from downtown’s Parade Plaza to City Hall on Friday to demand money be taken from the $12.1 million police budget to better fund education and services that support Black, brown and poor residents. The city’s police budget rose by about 5% this year, from $11.5 million to $12.1 million, an increase attributed to health care and salary costs.

The calls to defund police are not unique to New London but rather part of a nationwide movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Black Lives Matter protests have taken place across the country against police brutality, among other causes. Supporters want to pull funds away from police in order to boost social services in an attempt to reduce contact between the public and police, which some argue would reduce the number of confrontations.

"Through our protests, petitions and testimonies, we have documented support from a large percentage of New London’s population for the defunding of the New London Police Department. We are tired of being overpoliced. We are tired of lacking access to decent paying jobs, mental health services and education," C.J. Parker read from a prepared statement.

The crowd's chants on Friday turned to “come out, Passero,” on the steps of City Hall, where a list of demands was read to a cheering crowd. Mayor Michael Passero eventually obliged and stepped outside to field questions.

Shineika Fareus, a member of the New London-based youth activist group Hearing Youth Voices, was among the first to pose questions. She said residents are frustrated that Passero and members of the City Council have declined to take up the cause of defunding police and have instead left taxpayers with an added burden. She referenced the $2.2 million grant recently accepted by the council to fund the hiring of six new officers for three years. The council also funded the hiring of two additional officers.

“Mayor Passero ran his campaign around a low tax rate for New London residents. Accepting this grant really means in three years, when his term is over, residents are going to be responsible for covering those salaries and facing the consequences of accepting that grant. I think that is a conversation people are not having. They are looking at the short term,” Fareus said.

Passero has defended his position and said he was committed to changing the culture in the city, as evidenced by the recently passed resolution to declare racism a public health crisis, a resolution he championed. In response to the calls for defunding police, Passero said it would be cutting an already under-resourced department. Better resources for social services would come through the increase in investments in the city, which translate to higher revenues, he said.

“My desire is to leave this city in better shape for the next generation,” Passero told the crowd.

The council, through its Public Safety Committee meetings, has continued talks with police department administration about what can be done to alter procedures and minimize police interactions during calls for service that might not require a police presence.

Councilor Kevin Booker Jr., head of the committee, has asked that the department look toward programs like the one in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. It is a mental health crisis intervention program that diverts certain 911 calls relating to things like mental health services to a medic and crisis worker, rather than police.

But Fareus called it “absolutely a political excuse and unwillingness to challenge the administration or police union,” that has kept the City Council from discussing the shifting of police funds.

Law Director Jeffrey Londregan has said it is the mayor who controls the checkbook after the budget is passed but promised to prepare a legal opinion for the council. While the council has not indicated whether or not it would consider a so-called defunding measure, some councilors have expressed interest in revisiting the department's 80-officer mandate, which was approved by a previous council.

Meanwhile, Hearing Youth Voices continues to gather signatures — 8,300 and counting — on an online petition “demanding” that:

  • 35% of the New London Police Department 2020 budget be invested into services that support New London residents who are Black, brown and poor.
  • an additional $760,000 be immediately reallocated from the police department's 2020 budget to New London Public Schools.
  • the city school district immediately severs its relationship with the police department.
  • city police demilitarize immediately.
  • community members have oversight of the police union contract.
  • the New London Police Community Relations Committee be abolished and replaced with an independent community police review board.
  • the police department undergoes training to learn about the reality of anti-Black racism.

g.smith@theday.com

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