NEW LONDON – Saying it would be “a total disregard for public safety” to hold Sailfest in the face of short-staffing on the city’s police force, the officers’ union is calling for the event to be canceled.
The 3-day July event typically attracts up to 300,000 people to the city, according to the union, and the force is not equipped to handle the associated traffic, crowd-control and rowdy or criminal behavior that occurs every year.
“The police department does not have the staffing to support an event of this size to ensure the safety of the public and its officers,” Union President Sgt. Josh Bergeson and Vice President Officer David Diogo said in the letter sent to the Mayor and an array of other city officials. “While we all hope that an event will happen with no serious issues, to not be prepared for it or have the resources to handle it would be dangerous and reckless.”
The union’s letter says that the department currently has 59 sworn officers, down from about 75 a few years ago, and several current officers are expected to retire before the event.
Over the past 11 years, the department averaged 302 police calls for service during the event, according to the letter.
Mayor Michael Passero said while he understands the union’s “very legitimate” concerns, there are no plans to cancel the festival and he believes the department and more than 20 other assisting agencies will be able to provide a safe environment.
“Our staffing has been this low for some Sailfests and it’s been lower for some Sailfests,” he said. “I am confident that we have plenty of resources to handle this event.”
Passero said the city swore in one new officer last week and will hire two more next week.
He also highlighted a long list of state and federal agencies that help secure the event, including the FBI, the U.S Coast Guard and Navy, the federal Dept. of Homeland Security and the state Dept. of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, as well as a number of area police and fire departments.
The festival, which includes a parade of ships on the Thames River, a huge fireworks display, amusement rides, entertainment, and more than 200 street vendors, began in 1972 and has been canceled the last two years due to the COVID pandemic.
Police Chief Brian Wright said the department has become adept at handling the “task heavy” event as it learns from experience every summer.
“We will utilize and take full advantage of all that we have acquired from past Sailfest events to navigate a safe event this year,” he said. “Planning will be essential.”
Barbara Neff, executive director of the New London Downtown Association which organizes and sponsors the event with other partners, deferred comments about security to Passero.
She noted that the festival typically brings in about $58 million in revenue to the area, and is an important source of income for shops, restaurants and other merchants.
According to the union’s letter, New London officers typically work 16-20 hours a day during the event, leaving only four to eight hours off between shifts.
“Our collective bargaining agreement does not allow officers to work greater than 16 hours unless it is an emergency,” the letter says. “The city administration cannot continue to call Sailfest an emergency when it is pre-planned months in advance.”
The department has relied heavily on mutual aid officers from other area departments to help with the event, the letter says, but similar staffing issues in the region have led to a decrease in that assistance.
The letter also said that the staffing issue will mean fewer officers being able to handle the enormous amount of traffic during the event, and especially after the fireworks display.
The expected gridlock that will occur, “will slow response time for critical services such as ambulances and paramedics not only within the city, but for the surrounding towns trying to deliver patients to the city’s hospital,” it read.
In addition to the Sailfest crowds downtown, thousands more visitors flock to Ocean Beach Park during the weekend.
“The requests for staffing officers at this location has been denied year after year due to all staffing being required for the other operations, normal patrol, traffic, and Sailfest venue,” the letter said.
The letter also describes some of the serious crimes that have occurred during the event, including shootings and stabbings, as well as large fights and bottles being thrown at officers.
The union said that in lieu of Sailfest, the city should consider smaller events such as the “Eat in the Street” and scaled-down fireworks that were held the past two years.
“We believe that these types of events are safer to operate due to our staffing levels,” the letter said.
Passero said that he sees the return of the festival after a two-year absence as a vital boost for the city, the region and the thousands that attend.
“For the morale of everybody coming out of the pandemic,” he said, “we have a responsibility to bring it back.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments by Police Chief Brian Wright