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New London police raise safety concerns about return of Sailfest

New London — Citing staffing concerns, the New London police union has asked the city to cancel the planned return of Sailfest this year.

The union, in a letter to Mayor Michael Passero and other city officials, argues that the department’s numbers have fallen to a near record low of 59 sworn officers, and other departments that typically provide mutual aid for the event are suffering similar staffing issues.

“The New London Police Union would like to express to the city and its administration that the police department does not have the staffing to support an event of this size to ensure the safety of the public and its officers,” the letter reads.

The letter is signed by union President Joshua Bergeson and Vice President David Diogo. The undated letter was shared with The Day on Thursday. Bergeson did not immediately return a request for comment.

City officials, including Passero and police Chief Brian Wright, are not discounting concerns about manpower at the department but argue that Sailfest would not be going forward if there were not confidence in holding a safe event.

Sailfest is poised for a return this year after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The three-day event typically attracts between 200,000 and 300,000 people on the city’s waterfront and downtown, with the biggest crowds usually showing up on Saturday night for the fireworks display. The event is slated to run from July 8 to 10 this year.

The union states in its letter that the police department is responsible for three separate operations during the event: normal patrol operations, traffic and the downtown venues. The department uses all available personnel to cover the different shifts and duties. Officers work 16- to 20-hour shifts during the event, the union said.

“Our collective Bargaining Agreement does not allow officers to work greater than 16 hours unless it’s an emergency. The City Administration cannot continue to call Sailfest an emergency when it is preplanned months in advance,” the union letter argues.

The union predicts gridlock after the weekend’s fireworks display and slower response times for services, such as ambulances, in New London and surrounding towns because of the lack of manpower.

The letter goes on to list a host of serious incidents that have occurred through the years, including shootings in the city in 2018 and 2019 and numerous fights and disturbances.

“We appreciate their concerns, but we don’t agree,” Passero said of the union’s argument. “We’re going to put on a safe event, and we wouldn’t be holding Sailfest if we didn’t think it would be safe."

Sailfest is sponsored by the Downtown New London Association in partnership with the city.

In addition to New London police officers, Passero said the city is relying on a large network of agencies — law enforcement and otherwise — to pitch in for the festivities. Those organizations include the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Navy, Connecticut State Police, FBI, American Red Cross, U.S. Coast Guard and personnel from police and fire departments from neighboring towns.

Passero said he does not discount concerns about manpower, and the city is aggressively seeking new officers to keep up with retirements over the past year.

“We have full confidence in the chief and his opinion that we are up for the task,” Passero said.

Chief Wright said Sailfest, like any other major event, is “a large undertaking and very task heavy” and planning is essential to create a safe event.

“Fortunately, it is an annual event, so we’re constantly learning from previous years,” he said.

After each Sailfest, Wright said, there are debriefing sessions internally and externally to discuss and identify “what worked and what didn’t work in order to improve our operations for future Sailfest events.”

“We will utilize and take full advantage of all that we have acquired from past Sailfest events to navigate a safe event this year,” Wright said in a written response to questions.

g.smith@theday.com

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