Longtime New London school officer gives up post
New London — For seven years, city police Officer Max Bertsch walked the grounds of New London Public Schools, sometimes leading training sessions, and other times logging “face time” with various students — whether once a week or once a day.
In August, however, the longtime school resource officer left his post to return to the department’s Patrol Division — a decision he said was hard to make.
“The nice thing about police work is there are different avenues,” Bertsch said, explaining that before he became the school resource officer toward the end of 2009, he was a member of the Motorcycle Unit. “Now I’m back in patrol and looking at what will be next.”
Over the years, Bertsch played a role in the establishment of New London’s Juvenile Review Board, oversaw multiple National Night Out events, taught criminal justice courses for youth and even helped New London's culinary and environmental programs obtain grow lights seized from a drug bust — all while keeping his door open to students at all times.
Since August 2013, he’s done it by himself.
“It’s a labor of love,” Bertsch said of the busy position, which he already misses. “You need to enjoy working with kids. The ones that do are greatly rewarded.”
Both Bertsch and Capt. Lawrence J. Keating Jr. said they’re confident the two officers who’ve been chosen to fill Bertsch’s shoes will do so with flying colors.
One of them, Officer Michael Lewis, served with the federal Veterans Affairs Police and mentored youth through various programs before joining the New London department in March.
His focus is on the city’s middle school, although he can shift over to help out in any of the other schools as needed.
Officer Brendan Benway, who is stationed at the high school, earned a master’s degree in education and was a teacher before coming to New London in March last year.
“One thing about the kids is they find out who’s real and who’s not really quickly,” Bertsch said. “I believe these two will forge great relationships with them and gain their trust.”
Since New London began providing school resource officers in 2000, Keating said school funding and police staffing levels alternatively have limited the number of officers installed.
This year marks the first year two officers have been assigned to the schools since Officer Anthony Nolan left the post in 2013.
New London police still have work to do in terms of hitting the 80-officer mandate set by the City Council, Keating noted, but “we’re trying to work with the school community”
“We want to see the magnet schools succeed,” Keating said, adding that it was Chief Margaret Ackley who championed the idea of bringing two officers back to the schools.
The idea, he and Bertsch said, is to be proactive rather than reactive.
Students thinking about turning social media fights into physical ones? Talk them down and keep in touch.
Children thinking about running away from home? Point them to other resources that can help them.
“One of the most important things in law enforcement right now is community policing, period,” Bertsch said. “With current events in the country, every day, what do you see on the TV? I think if I was a 12-, 13-year-old that didn’t have law enforcement in the family, had no contact with law enforcement ... I may develop a very negative picture of a police officer.”
Bertsch said his open-door policy brought in all kinds of comments and concerns over the years.
Sometimes it was teenagers traumatized over stolen electronics. Other times students expressed how upset they were after being bullied.
In one case, a student who’d witnessed a crime provided information that ultimately led police to make an arrest in a murder case.
Bertsch said school resource officers have the chance to positively influence students’ lives, too. Just last year, one told him she still was fulfilling the DARE promises she made in elementary school.
“Your positive interaction makes a difference,” he said.
According to Kate McCoy, the district’s executive director of strategic planning, one last executive session regarding the funding of the two salaries needs to be held before the district can say definitively that it will keep both positions.
Traditionally, the Science and Technology Magnet High School and New London High School have split the cost of the position, although not evenly.
McCoy said the meeting is slated for next week.
But Benway, with a month already under his belt at the high school, is only looking forward.
“For the year, my biggest goal is just getting the trust of the kids,” he said, adding that he regularly walks around the building. “It’s not going to happen overnight, and probably not by Christmas break. But if I can achieve that by the end of this year, then I’ll be able to pick up where I left off next year.”
As for Bertsch, he said he’s finding the skills he gained and relationships he grew as a school resource officer more beneficial than he could have imagined on the streets.
"There's not a street I can go on where someone won't come out and say, 'Hey Bertsch,'" he said. "It makes this job a lot more enjoyable."
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