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New London repeals police officer staffing mandate

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New London — Ongoing discussions about a shift away from traditional policing to focus more on the social services needs of the community led to a City Council vote on Monday to repeal an ordinance that mandates a minimum of 80 officers in the police department.

The ordinance has been in place since 2014, a time when overtime costs were rising, morale was low and officers were leaving the department due to concerns of layoffs. The size of the police department has increased from 65 at that time to 73 sworn officers today. By comparison, the department had 90 officers in 2007.

Some councilors have called the 80-officer mandate arbitrary. The number is based on recommendations in a study commissioned in 2007 that some view as outdated considering the changing demographics and needs of the community. The department has not reached the 80-officer goal since it was enacted but has allowed what City Councilor James Burke called “de facto police budget increases” through the years. Repealing the ordinance will allow the council to have an “honest and open dialogue” about equitable funding between the city’s various departments, he said.

Activists who are part of a New London People’s Budget Coalition repeatedly have called for changes in the way city money is spent and for reductions to the more than $12 million police budget as part of the greater conversation about policing, reflective of a nationwide trend.

Residents point to statistics showing 40% of New London police calls are for mental health or substance abuse issues as a reason to redirect funding. A task force appointed by Mayor Michael Passero looked at police policies, and among other recommendations, has called for an increase in collaborations between police and social service agencies to help reduce calls for police in situations where a mental health specialist might be better suited. The recommendations did not include an outright call for a reduction in police spending.

Habibah Abdul-Hakeem, a member of the Police Community Relations Committee, said that based on comparisons to similarly sized cities, the New London Police Department is “overstaffed.”

“Freeing up funds to provide for the needs and desires of our community I know is beyond a shadow of a doubt something we can do,” Abdul-Hakeem said.

Downsizing the force would be one way to free up funding to provide for better police training and partnerships, she said

“The opportunity to change and be more in tune to the needs of our people is available," resident Ranjit Mathews said.

The all-Democratic council voted 6-1 to repeal the ordinance. Councilor John Satti was the lone dissenting vote and said, in part, that he believed the repeal was the “first step in an attempt to cut funding to our police department at a time when it’s important to support our police officers.”

New London police Officer Ryan Soccio called the idea of reducing staff “puzzling” and “demoralizing” in light of the high volume of calls fielded by police officers and burnout at the department.

“Right now the police department is treading water. Any further cuts would just put us under,” he said.

Others in opposition said calls for defunding police are a trend and warned of consequences such as longer waits for police responses and people leaving the city because of deterioration in the quality of life.

Councilor Curtis Goodwin said the repeal of the ordinance does not prohibit the council or police from adequately staffing the police department. He said staffing numbers at the department should be based on “data, facts, real-time research to help guide us in determining how many police should be on our streets.”

Goodwin said the repeal is a reflection of a need to be flexible and was open to the idea of seeking a new study on community needs.

Council President Efrain Dominguez was more blunt, saying, “We are not defunding police. We are not hating on police.”

Resident Ronna Stuller said the fundamental issue is that “we’re always dealing with changing conditions and needs and our elected officials need to be able to develop a budget every year that is responsive to our community’s current priorities and not bound by city goals of times past.”

Police Chief Peter Reichard, who was questioned during Monday’s meeting, did not directly answer whether the repeal would hinder the department’s ability to employ an adequate staff. He said his focus is maintaining at least the minimum number of officers needed to fill each of three shifts as well as maintain an investigative division. Reichard said the department staffs, at a minimum, five officers and one supervisor on the road and one supervisor and one officer “in-house” per shift. He said his intention is to request funding this year that maintains the current staffing level of 73 officers.

Passero, who will present his proposed budget in the coming weeks, said the city already has instituted programs to address mental health and substance abuse issues. He said he hopes to further bolster those programs. “We are working on developing alternative methods to deliver the services we all want to deliver to the folks in need. We have to build the new system before we dismantle the old system.”

“I caution the council and I urge the council to consider the real needs of our police department, the value they bring, and let’s work to make sure the services they deliver to us is the policing our community wants,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

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