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East Lyme police chief decries 'abhorrently low' staff levels

East Lyme — The police chief and police commission are requesting two additional officers in the upcoming budget year as part of a broader plan to address what they describe as insufficient staffing levels.

Chief Michael Finkelstein and commission Chairman Daniel Price told members of the Board of Finance on Monday evening that they would like to hire two officers per year for the next six budget cycles.

The request to put the plan into action for the 2021-22 budget year is part of a proposed $25.99 million town operations budget from First Selectman Mark Nickerson. The town side of the budget combines with the $52.80 million Board of Education budget for a total of $78.79 million. The total spending package represents an increase of $2.60 million, or 3.41%, over the current budget.

The department requests were presented in advance of finance board deliberations set to begin next week.

Finkelstein referred to current staffing levels — which amount to 24 full-time officers, one part-time officer and the chief — as "abhorrently low." The structure allows for two officers and a sergeant on every shift, even when the beach town's population doubles in the summer.

"I want you to envision a situation where it's Saturday in the summer and you have three officers working the town and you're getting four, five, six calls going on at the same time," the chief said.

Data from the Office of Legislative Research published in December ranks East Lyme fifth from the bottom in terms of the ratio of officers to residents. That means there are 1.23 officers on the streets for every thousand residents. The statistics were based on the average number of officers in each town over a period of 10 years, compared with the average annual population. The only towns with lower ratios were Suffield, Portland, East Hampton and Plainfield, the lowest of which came in at 1.10.

The state average was 2.10 officers per thousand residents, according to the data.

Price cautioned that basing the plan on today's population will still leave the department understaffed six years from now if growth trends continue. "But I think it will help," he said.

The police commission chairman refuted an argument he's heard for years: that the force has gotten by with 24 officers for this long and is doing fine.

"The fact of the matter is, we're not. They're stretched very, very thin. They're doing a remarkable job with what they have, but we really need to consider a long-term plan," Price said.

The request comes amid a national reckoning with systemic racism that was brought to the spotlight following the death of George Floyd and other Black individuals at the hands of police. There have been calls at the local, state and national levels to defund police, or shift funding from police department budgets to other areas, such as social services and education.

Benjamin Ostrowski, a member of the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity, or SCORE, board of directors, said in an email that his organization is withholding comment on staffing levels until its members meet with the East Lyme police chief on Thursday. Ostrowski said the meeting is the first of what he hopes will be a recurring, collaborative discussion intended to "enhance communication, transparency, and collaboration between the police and the community."

SCORE, originally known as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter, was formed in October 2020. The group created a scholarship program for East Lyme High School students of color, advocates for anti-bias training and professional development for the town's public school systems and collaborates with the Board of Education on school policy reform. Its members last week presented the Board of Selectmen with a proposal to adopt a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

Ostrowski emphasized the group's belief in the importance of training officers, especially in the areas of anti-bias, de-escalation and nonlethal force.

"While these specific areas are not detailed in the training item of the budget proposal, we sincerely hope that they will be addressed with any new funds coming the department's way," he said.

The budget proposal does include $5,600 for bias training that is now required in every police department following the passage of a sweeping police accountability bill last summer.

The law created a new inspector general to investigate police use-of-force cases, limited the circumstances in which deadly use of force can be justified, allowed more civilian oversight of police departments and allowed civil lawsuits against officers by individuals who have had their constitutional rights violated by police whose actions are deemed "malicious, wanton or willful," among other things.

Other proposed budget expenditures for the police department include five stun guns and accessories for a total of $8,535. The equipment will increase officers' capabilities "on a less lethal front," according to Finkelstein.

In a separate information technology section of the budget, the support contract for body cameras and additional cruiser cameras increased from $4,000 in the current budget to $32,000 based on a new state mandate requiring body cameras for all officers.

Finkelstein said installation of the cameras will begin May 11. Meeting minutes show a special appropriation of $279,549.32 was approved by the finance board in November to cover 25 cameras and 14 cars. The state is expected to reimburse 30% of the cost.

Finkelstein previously told The Day that while the force already had dashboard cameras, it did not have body cameras. He said he presented a plan to the town to purchase body cameras more than two years ago, but the idea was turned down due high costs and because there was no guarantee the state would reimburse the purchase.

Finkelstein said at the time that the town also would need to expand its IT infrastructure to support the vast amount of data and video memory that would need to be saved and stored to adequately follow state Freedom of Information Act laws. He said the town would need to pay for that additional video data storage as well as purchase redaction software.

He told finance board members that the department is now "extremely IT focused."

"Right now, tech is at the forefront of what we're doing, and that's important because technology allows us to do our job better, more efficiently and with more accountability," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

e.regan@theday.com

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