OLD LYME — On Saturday, July 13, I put on a protective vest, buckled up and joined Old Lyme Police Officer Kevin Roche for his daytime shift.
“I’m guessing you’ve already missed the busiest part of the day,” he said to me as soon as I was in the car. Before 9 a.m. Roche had already responded to two car accidents on Boston Post Road.
It turned out Roche was right. Saturday is “changeover day” for summer rentals in many of Old Lyme’s beach associations and things were calm. Despite the crowds at the public beach, and the nearly-full parking lots, the private beaches were quiet and we didn’t receive a single call the entire afternoon.
The quiet did give us time to stop by a lemonade stand in Point O’ Woods, and the dedication of the Jonathan Glenn Court at Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau and to discuss everything from the difficulties of policing along the I-95 corridor to the increasing number of joggers Roche has seen in his 31 years as a police officer for Old Saybrook and Old Lyme.
CT Examiner: What has changed about the shoreline area the most in your 31 years as an officer in Old Saybrook and Old Lyme?
Officer Roche: 10 to 15 years ago there were a lot more bars, and the beach was wide open. Now many of the businesses have closed and there are fences up dividing the beaches. Also, people in some of these smaller towns have a false sense of security. It’s not 20 years ago where you used to be able to leave your keys and wallet in the car. Also, they’re busier. Pre-casino there would be no cars between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. As soon as they opened the casinos there was 24-hour traffic.
CT Examiner: What are the most common complaints and calls in the beach association areas?
Officer Roche: We get a lot of calls for cars going too fast and skipping stop signs. But it’s complicated. What’s our jurisdiction on the private roads? It’s unclear. In Old Saybrook there are beach associations, but the town owns all the roads. They licensed all the golf carts. Each cart needs to have a flag and the driver needs a license. Over here in Old Lyme, theoretically a 12-year-old could be driving a golf cart and we have no power to ticket or arrest for it.
CT Examiner: Why is there a police officer frequently parked near the public beach?
Officer Roche: We are an authority presence. We are hoping that we can prevent a problem by just being here. It’s hard to know how much of a help it is… how can you measure what doesn’t happen? The same goes for patrolling the streets. We hope the sight of us deters people from breaking the law, but it’s hard to know.
CT Examiner: What are the challenges of policing along the I-95 corridor?
Officer Roche: Having a major highway go through your town brings in other people. It used to be that people were not paying for gas, they’d drive away before paying, now gas stations have required prepaying. Being in Old Lyme today, especially in the summer, people are coming off 95 and you are policing people who aren’t part of the community. The cars that have gotten broken into are due to youth and younger people from urban areas that come in off the highway. Burglaries happen from people coming off the highway which makes it really challenging to solve them.
CT Examiner: Have you noticed a change in attitude from the public toward police officer over your 31 years of service?
Officer Roche: Definitely, it seems like there has been a growing lack of respect for authority — and that goes for teachers and other public servants too — across all generations in the past few years. If someone doesn’t respect my authority the next step is to use some sort of force. If you’re not respecting what I’m saying it makes my job very difficult.
CT Examiner: What do you do to try to change that attitude?
Officer Roche: I try to build a positive relationship with kids. I want them to have a positive interaction with a police officer. It’s hard because they hear what they hear about us, but I stop at every lemonade stand I can … I think I stopped at six in just one day.
CT Examiner: Do you think the wellness craze has impacted the roadways?
Officer Roche: There are certainly more runners and cyclists. It’s not a problem during the day, but in the night people aren’t always smart. You need to wear reflective clothing. Cyclists are making themselves a hazard when they come too far into the road. Technically they need to be single file. Also, they are supposed to obey all traffic laws including stop signs and stop lights. They often don’t and just hope that cars see them.
CT Examiner: How has the juvenile review board impacted your work?
Officer Roche: Very positively. Who hasn’t done something stupid or foolish when they were a kid? The juvenile review board has given kids the opportunity to realize what they’ve done wrong and get help so that they won’t repeat their mistakes.
CT Examiner: Besides the change in how juveniles are treated, what other big shifts have you seen in the police department during your career?
Officer Roche: Domestic violence has become more and more of a focus. It used to be that it was viewed as a private matter, a problem for the couple to sort out. Now the idea is to help the victims and get the family help. We’ve come along way for the good. Also, driving under the influence enforcement has notched up a lot. If you stopped a car when the bar closed 30 years ago the person was drunk. Now you see designated drivers and Ubers. These changes take time, but they eventually catch on. Just like seat belts, it took a long time, but now everyone wears one. We are hoping texting and driving will follow suit. It will just take time.
CT Examiner: Have drugs been an issue in Old Lyme during your time here?
Officer Roche: Heroin and opioids are here. We’ve had a lot of overdoses, used Narcan, and had a few deaths in the past two years.
CT Examiner: Going forward, what is the biggest problem facing the police force in Connecticut?
Officer Roche: The police application pool and recruitment is way down. This is not just in Connecticut, this is nationwide. We have been destroyed by the media. A cop gets into trouble and that’s headline news, but if a doctor does or lawyer nobody knows about it.
In the late 80s and 90s they did a lot of hiring, now all of us are retiring. Now there is not the population to replace the retirees. The applicant pool has been horrible. You have to be a certain kind of person to be a police officer. It’s someone who is a rules type of person, believes in right and wrong, wants to do the right things and someone who wants to help people. When we interview we want to hear that they want to help people, that’s most of our job. We are helping more people than we are arresting. We are not getting qualified applicants, 33 percent can’t pass the written test. Sadly, that’s the national average and this is simple stuff like addition and subtraction.
Watch for in-depth look at the dwindling and under-qualified applicant pool for police officers across the nation coming later this week.