The City of New London is accepting a $2.1 million grant from through US Department of Justice under the COPS Hiring Program.
The federal grant funds six new officers for the next three years. A local match of 25% is also required, which the City of New London will contribute by hiring two additional officers. According to the city, the eight officers will take staffing levels from 69 to 77, just three below the city ordinance requiring 80 officers in the department.
"We are already under-resourced," said Mayor Michael Passero. "We have a hard time maintaining adequate personnel on the shifts that we have to staff. Currently, with the level of staffing we have in the department, we have to mandate overtime in order to keep enough officers on duty."
City councilors voted six to one to accept the federal grant, with some saying that accepting the grant is financially prudent. Councilor James Burke voted against accepting the grant.
Burke and others raised a point challenging the city's ordinance that requires 80 police officers. The ordinance is based off of a survey that was completed in 2007.
“I think we need a new report. Especially based on the national and local conversation we are having about police reform," said Burke. "This golden number of 80 that we are working very hard to obtain needs to be revisited.”
The vote to accept the grant came after several people spoke out against the grant during public comment, arguing that the city does not need 80 officers.
"What are we really doing if we are automatically assuming that if there is not 80 police officers New London will become a criminal town?" Shineika Fareus, one of the people who spoke during public comment, said during an interview with NBC Connecticut.
Fareus is a member of Hearing Youth Voices, a group that has been asking the city to defund the police and reallocate funding to social services.
"The public works department, the public library, our education systems need more funding, but here we are putting more funding towards the police department," said Fareus.
Fareus said that Hearing Youth Voices believes funds are not distributed the right way across the city. She and another member, Shawn Brooks, said that they also believe in order to address racism in the community, the police department needs to be defunded.
"New London shouldn't declare racism as a public health crisis until it actually does the work and the digging to defund the police because policing stems from white supremacy," said Brooks. "That is why defunding our police so we can re-imagine and redesign what safety should look like."
Chief Peter Reichard told NBC Connecticut that more than 90% of the police budget is spent on salaries and benefits.
"If you eliminate law and order in a community and society, it is going to run amuck," said Reichard. "I would simply say, 'What do you mean by defund the police? Let's sit down and talk. Do you know where the money in the police department goes?'"
Passero said that he would like to see more funding for social services. He said that one of his focuses is how the city can reform its 911 system so that dispatchers are able to deliver a social service response for certain calls where an armed police officer would not be needed.
Passero said that since the city hired a human services director four years ago, emergency transports have decreased by 75%.
"That position has been able to relieve the pressure on our fire department and our EMS services," said Passero. "We think we can expand that so that we can take pressure off of the police department and limit the kind of responses that are creating a problem right now."
However, Passero said that the funding for social services should not come from the police department, which he said is a "grossly underfunded" department.
"It is just robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Passero. "And it is going to create problems that we don't have right now."
The city estimates that more than a dozen officers will be eligible for retirement in the next year. Reichard said that hiring has been a challenge for the last several years and he does not expect it to be any easier during the current climate.
"Candidate pools have dwindled. Every department, I believe, in this part of the state is seeing the same results," said Reichard.
The conversation in New London is far from over. The eight officers will be joining the department as the mayor is launching a brand new public safety policy review committee.
"To look at where we are at and for them to advise the city as to what changes are needed," said Passero. "I am very confident that between the initiatives that are taking place up at the state capitol and what we are looking at with the local thing, that we are going to adjust the training of our officers to meet the needs of our community. I believe that is going to be one of the positive outcomes of this current unrest."
Fareus said that Hearing Youth Voices will continue to call for defunding of the police department.
"The conversation of reform and training, we have been doing that for years and we are not getting anywhere with that," said Fareus.
In addition to requesting a new study of how many officers are needed in the community, Councilor Curtis Goodwin pushed for the council to continue having holistic conversations about policing in the community.
"These are eight new people coming into our community. With what background? Is it in social services? Is it just in policing?" said Goodwin. "I want to have those conversations."