EAST LYME — The town’s Board of Selectmen voiced support for adding additional officers to the town’s young police department, which its chief says does not have enough staff to handle investigations and traffic enforcement.
East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said that his officers spend most of their time running between calls, meaning they don’t have time for follow up investigations or to patrol traffic, which accounts for most complaints to the department, he said.
“It also becomes a safety issue, because if you’re going to a domestic violence incident, and now you have another call like a burglary or an alarm where you only have one officer respond, or it’s a delayed response,” Finkelstein said. “First and foremost, what we’re able to provide the public is diminished by having less people on the road working.
Finkelstein is asking for two additional officers for his department of 25 – the first of a series of increases envisioned by the town’s Police Commission that would add 12 officers over six years to bring the total force to 37 officers in 2027. Raises and the two additional officers next year would add $182,281 to the $1,916,500 budgeted for officers next year.
Finkelstein said the department has been understaffed since he was first named chief, when East Lyme left the state’s resident trooper program to form its own department in 2017. Between 2018 — the department’s first full year — and 2020, calls to the deparment have increased by 10 percent, and the town has hired two additional officers.
Between 2019 and 2020, total calls for service increased from 16,966 to 18,225, even as traffic stops plummeted from 1,818 to 688. Building checks accounted for most of that increase – adding 2,848 calls, more than doubling the number for 2019.
Finkelstein said his officers, working three to a shift including one sergeant, are constantly running from call to call, and aren’t left with enough time to follow up on the complaints they’re investigating. If an officer is called to a business for a report of credit card fraud, that takes time to investigate, which they can’t do if they’re quickly called to an accident, he said.
“If you had four officers on that shift, then it’s much easier for one officer to do their investigation, and somebody else is responding to the accidents, the alarms, the other things that are happening,” Finkelstein said.
At a special meeting on Wednesday night to review the town’s public safety budgeting, Police Commission Chair Dan Price compared East Lyme’s level of staffing with other departments in the state and region.
In 2019, East Lyme had the sixth lowest number of police officers per capita of all departments in Connecticut – 1.28, according to a report from the state’s Office of Legislative Research.
The state median is about 1.94. Over the first three years of its existence, East Lyme averaged the third-lowest staffing per capita, according to the report, ahead of only Plainfield and Shelton.
Price said the Police Commission’s six year plan to add 12 officers is intended to bring the town’s staffing to 1.9 officers per 1,000 people, which would put it around the median staffing statewide.
“The numbers show the facts,” Selectman Paul Dagle said. “The addition of two police officers is probably less than what we need, but it’s a step in the right direction. I wholly endorse the need to increase the budget to support that.”
First Selectman Mark Nickerson said that the Police Commission — on which he serves as an ex-officio member — had a reasonable plan for the increase.
“It is our primary responsibility as the Board of Selectmen to be watching out for the welfare of our town, and that would include our basic responsibility, which is public safety,” Nickerson said. “The numbers show we are putting our officers in danger, and the public could be in danger should a large situation occur and we simply don’t have the manpower that would meet minimum standards, and we have an obligation to get this town there.”
Selectman Daniel Cunningham said he was happy to see increased training in the budget – partially a result of requirements from the state police accountability laws passed last summer — for which Finkelstein requested $6,810 more than the $52,000 budgeted for training last year.
Finkelstein also requested a $12,675 increase to training supplies budgeted at $28,500 last year. That includes two handguns for the new officers, as well as additional Tasers to give the department more “less than lethal” options. Cunningham said the additional training and Tasers are moving the department in a good direction, as is the additional staff.
“The police are out there doing what they do, they have to feel safe and you can’t have them understaffed,” Cunningham said. “If we’re going to accommodate all the concerns that the public has, we have to make sure that the police have adequate staffing.”