East Lyme first selectman recommends independent police force
East Lyme — First Selectman Mark Nickerson announced Thursday that he is recommending his town move to an independent police force, a move that two other area towns — Montville and Ledyard — have considered, with different results.
Nickerson said East Lyme has had a great relationship with the state police and a long legacy of good resident state troopers, but the town has grown since it first joined the resident trooper program decades ago — and so have the duties of the police force.
"This is a decision simply about who should manage our force of 22 police officers in our town of 20,000," Nickerson said.
An independent police force would mean a hired police chief and a police commission comprising about five to seven town resident volunteers.
The Board of Selectmen is expected to hear a presentation and begin discussions on an independent police force at its next meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall.
In East Lyme, Nickerson said the creation of an independent police force has long been a topic of conversation and the subject of several studies.
"I think going to an independent status will give us more value for the money we are paying on public protection, but also more accountability," he added.
Nickerson said the town currently spends more than $200,000 for the resident state trooper program, with costs expected to increase.
By moving to an independent police force, the town could avoid paying $150,000 for upgrades to the state police's radio system, which will be required this year or next year, he said.
He said he thinks the town could move to an independent force for the same cost as the current department, but he noted that it would be worth it to taxpayers if it costs a little more, but brought in more value.
Nickerson said that under the state contract, the resident trooper, a state employee, works 40 hours a week. The state police have established a chain of command for when a town's resident state trooper is not on duty for the town.
But he said an independent police force would provide continuity and an "in-house" chain of command at all times. For example, a lieutenant or deputy chief could serve as second in command to the police chief.
Nickerson added that state police services — for example, the investigation of major crimes — still would be available if the town moved to an independent force.
In September 2015, the Ledyard Town Council approved a move to an independent department, with strong support from the town's officers and residents. Facing an increased cost of staying in the resident state trooper program, the Town Council unanimously voted for the change despite facing costs of about $70,000 to pay for a new vehicle for the chief, a fingerprinting scanner, breath-testing equipment and radio signal boosters.
In Montville, an ordinance creating an independent department in January of this year was shot down in a townwide referendum.
Despite endorsements by the Montville Town Council and a committee that said an independent department would bring stability and more grant opportunities to the town, more than 1,500 residents voted to repeal the ordinance in March.
A group of town residents convinced many that an independent department would mean higher taxes and would be unnecessarily expensive, despite the 17,000-square-foot public safety building built in 2010 to one day house an independent department.
It was the second time Montville voters had rejected the plan; a referendum overturned an independent department proposal in 2002.
In East Lyme, a task force studying the issue of an independent police force is expected to present to the selectmen on Wednesday. The task force is comprised of Thomas Gardner, Kathleen Miller, Joseph Perkins, Mark Powers, Stephen Rebelowski and Steve Kelley.
A group of the town's police sergeants are also studying the issue, Nickerson said.
Nickerson said Wednesday's meeting will be the beginning of the conversation and the dissemination of information, but the selectmen are not in a position to yet take a vote that evening.
He said the selectmen would hold a public hearing in the future, before voting on an ordinance.
"We will want to hear from the public on their opinions and any factual information they may have," he said. "This is an open discussion."
Day Staff Writer Martha Shanahan contributed to this report.