East Lyme to hold public hearing on independent police force
East Lyme — Residents will next have an opportunity to weigh in on whether they think the town should leave the resident state trooper program and establish an independent police force.
The Board of Selectmen voted 4-2 Wednesday night to schedule a public hearing for 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at Town Hall to seek comments. Specifically, the hearing will concern a potential ordinance that would establish a town Board of Police Commissioners charged with hiring a police chief and establishing policies and procedures for an independent police force.
A task force studying the issue had recommended to the selectmen Wednesday that the town leave the resident state trooper program and form its own police department.
During the presentation, Tom Gardner, the task force chairman, emphasized to the selectmen that leadership is a primary concern. He explained that the concerns were not about any individual trooper, but about the state program.
He pointed to issues including that the state police and local police have different reporting systems, radio systems and operating policies. He also said the state program brings a lack of continuity and has rising costs that the town has no control over.
The model that "is currently being used by the East Lyme Police Department is in direct conflict with the administrative and budgetary practices of the town of East Lyme," Gardner said.
Pointing to the town's growing population since it joined the trooper program decades ago, he said the town "needs someone embedded in the community" who would make sure the town is getting the services it is paying for.
Gardner said the task force recommends the town terminate the contract with the state police as quickly as possible — and no later than June 30, when it expires. He added the caveat that the transition shouldn't take place without appointing an interim director or chief to manage the police department.
First Selectman Mark Nickerson announced last week that while the town has had a good relationship with state police, he recommends an independent police force with a hired police chief to manage the town's 22-police officer department, which has grown — along with the town — over the years.
He said that an independent police force would provide better value and accountability with an "in-house" chain of command.
On Wednesday, Nickerson said he anticipates that the creation of an independent police force would be a "cost-neutral move." The resident trooper annually costs the town about $212,000, plus overtime.
If the Board of Selectmen ultimately voted in favor of the ordinance establishing the Board of Police Commissioners, the cost for hiring a police chief would be subject to that board and the Board of Finance, he said.
Nickerson estimates a police chief would annually cost around $90,000 to $110,000. Other expenses under an independent police department would be fees paid to Waterford for use of holding cells, and potentially a part-time dispatcher and a part-time administrator.
Sgt. Michael Macek, who was studying the issue along with the town's other police sergeants, also spoke in favor of moving to an independent force.
If the Board of Selectmen voted later to create the Board of Police Commissioners, it would comprise the first selectman and residents.
Selectmen Dan Cunningham and Rose Ann Hardy voted against sending the ordinance to public hearing. They said they weren't against an independent police force, but wanted additional time for discussion and requested more information.
Besides Gardner, the members of the task force — with backgrounds from law enforcement to the town's Board of Finance — are: Kathleen Miller, Joseph Perkins, Mark Powers, Stephen Rebelowski and Steve Kelley.