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New London voters back police minimum staffing ordinance

New London — Voters at a referendum on Tuesday rejected a City Council decision to repeal a minimum police staffing ordinance.

The result of Tuesday’s 983 to 669 vote essentially voids the 6-1 vote by the all-Democratic council in March that repealed a 2014 ordinance mandating a minimum of 80 officers at the police department. The ordinance will remain on the books.

Tuesday’s referendum attracted slightly more than 10% of the 15,612 registered voters in the city. It was an unusual summertime vote that some voters said could have waited until the November elections.

John Russell, who spearheaded the petition to force the referendum and is running for City Council, said the ‘no’ vote signifies pushback against a council that he alleges has used the pandemic to shorten the length of public discussion on police staffing and other issues.

“I’m glad to see this,” he said of Tuesday’s result. “I also believe it’s going to help the city in the end. The perception by outsiders is we’re not safe. I think it’s also going to improve morale for officers.”

City Republicans had argued during its ‘no’ campaign that the council’s vote to repeal the ordinance was one step toward cuts or “defunding” of the police department. It was a sentiment shared by some of the people who showed up at the polls, though the City Council actually had slightly increased the police budget this year and approved hiring of at least six new officers.

Others on the “yes” side said it was a false narrative to call the council’s repeal of the ordinance “anti-police” and the real issue was the city being tied to a fixed number. The City Council vote came about during some public calls for cuts to the police department and a shift toward more social services.

City Council President Efrain Dominguez said the referendum was just part of the democratic process. He said the council’s intention was never to cut police services, only help push the city toward a reimagining of public safety to include more social service interactions. The council’s approved budget contains funding for a new Human Services Department program aimed at reducing the number of mental-health-related 911 calls to police.

“We felt we did what the people wanted, what I heard from our constituents,” Dominguez said of the council vote to repeal the ordinance. “We’re not against police or our police officers. We need them. This is the process. The people spoke.”

The department has never reached 80 officers even with the ordinance in place and currently has about 70 officers.

Noah and Linda Levine, owners of the longtime family-owned Rapid Car Wash on Colman Street, cast “no” votes in District 1 on Tuesday. They said the city’s small businesses need police and they did not want to see any future cuts to the police budget or its manpower.

Both said they know individual officers and have had some trouble with crimes occurring now and again at their business. Police are not always immediately available because of what they feel is too few officers on the street.

The two said they care about the city and do not want to see any fewer officers.

“That’s why we came out to vote,” Linda Levine said.

Resident Michael Sousa voted “yes” on Tuesday and said he thinks the question has become overly political. “We shouldn’t be required to have 80 officers. This is not about eliminating police or reducing the size of the department,” he said.

Sousa said his one annoyance is the fact that the City Council opted for a summertime special election instead of sending the vote to the ballot in November. He said he believed it was designed to give cover to councilors seeking reelection.

Republican Town Committee Chairperson Kat Goulart said Tuesday’s vote “sends a message.”

“Residents in New London believed this ordinance was tied to the desire for a safe community,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk back and forth whether the ordinance repeal was symbolic, and whether or not it was or wasn’t a move to defund. At the end of the day residents showed support for a strong police department and ensured that officers feel supported.”

g.smith@theday.com

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