NEW LONDON – 14 local business owners met with Mayor Michael Passero, Police Chief Brian Wright, and Chief Administrative Officer Steven Fields at City Hall Thursday morning to voice their concerns about public safety.
The meeting came four days after a shootout on Bank Street early Sunday morning in the New London Downtown Waterfront District.
At the meeting, business owners requested more of a police presence in the district, especially in the late night hours after 11 p.m. when local bars and restaurants are closing up.
“It’d be nice to see more of a presence around our businesses,” said Brian Stradczuk, owner of The Social Bar + Kitchen at 208 Bank St., whose business is down the block from where the shooting took place. “This isn’t a downtown problem. This isn’t a bar problem. Everybody’s having a hard time. Crime is up. We need to put politics aside and say we’ve had enough. That’s what I’m looking for. Police protection is a deterrent.”
Stradczuk also recommended having officers on foot in the area making more of a connection with the public.
“You see this man,” he said, gesturing to Wright, “he walks around. People look and they see. They’re keeping an honest person honest. That stops the shenanigans. 15 years ago we had people walking up and down the street and it made a presence. I have to stay open for business. This is all of our lives.”
Rod Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe at 114 Bank St., asked that there be at least a police car stationed on Bank Street on weekend evenings from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., or making a loop through the area.
“It makes sense to have a police car there,” Cornish said. “We can’t have one sit there and park and call and react? Maybe make a loop around downtown? I don’t see that loop happening. I think it’s more important to have somebody based over there… then they can react.”
Passero said that the city is making efforts to make the area safer, including brightening new LED lights that will brighten up Bank Street.
He also said that one of the problems the city is facing is an understaffed police force.
“We have money, but we can’t hire police,” he said. “Our police department is well resourced, and we have money we can’t spend because we can’t find the personnel.”
He said the town is budgeted for 80 police officers on staff, but they currently only have 64.
“Law enforcement as a whole is suffering in numbers,” Wright said. “That’s nationally. We keep ongoing recruitment. It never closes.”
Wright said he understands perception is everything.
“We run five cars, two supervisors every shift,” he said. “We respond, in addition to covering a beat, to where an incident happens.”
As much as the police try to give a sense of omnipresence, Wright said, the police can’t be everywhere all the time, and if a priority call comes in, officers will be pulled over to that area.
“We want to work with everyone in trying to fill the needs and goals of the city,” he said. “We’re working hard, unfortunately we can’t be everywhere all the time, but we try to put people in as many places as possible.”
“We clearly get you need more robust presence downtown,” Fields said. “We will work toward that immediately. We’ll work toward you seeing more police officers during the late business hours. Most of our shootings that occur are not random acts of violence. They’re targeted. Our detectives are working hard on them.”
He said the investigation into Sunday’s shooting is ongoing.
“If there was an arrest you would know,” he said. “This case will be solved. We have a lot of work to still do, but it will be solved. Serious crimes that happen in this city get solved. I assure you we hear you today. We will give you that more presence downtown that you require and requested.”
“We will try very hard to deliver,” Passero said. “We don’t want to over promise and we don’t want to disappoint. We want to deliver exactly what you need. I have the money budgeted for 80 police officers. We are trying to do everything we can. We’re trying to get more resources. In the meantime, we will use all the resources we have. There are limits. Things can get pulled away to another incident that happens.”
City officials and the gathered business owners also discussed “the optics” of crime and safety.
Fields called out the New London Day newspaper for focusing on crime in New London and less in the neighboring town of Norwich, which has a higher crime rate.
“There’s shootings in Norwich all the time,” he said. “They don’t get coverage. We get triple coverage. It’s unfair. We’ll do everything within our powers to give you that additional security or feeling of security by seeing more resources in the evenings downtown.”
Passero said the town is working on improving the perception of New London by investing in places to live in the downtown area.
“It takes time,” he said. “It takes perseverance. I believe the investment we’re making in our businesses downtown will help.”
Jennifer Zembruski, managing director of the Garde Arts Center at 325 State St. suggested that a safety campaign would help with public perception.
“Where is the campaign about safety?” she asked. “There’s been a need for communication reassurance that we’re safe. There’s perception and working against perception is really hard. Some sort of campaign, some sort of consistent messaging that we’re safe. You can have the police down on Bank Street, word gets out, it becomes a deterrent. We want a long-term response.
“You are the success story of New London County,” she said. “If this has the lowest shootings and crime rate, use the data. This is the focal point. You’re doing your job. Share that story. Spin that story. Let people know it’s safe to come down here and you’re putting people downtown.
“This is a good time for you to be the salesman and sell this to the rest of the county,” Stradczuk said to Passero. “Everything we’re talking about is optics. Yes, we need more police. You’re the one who has to sell that. I’ll stand right behind you. We want you to take a stand. That’s what it comes down to.”
Passero said generating more and better public relations campaigns is do-able.
“The good thing is — investments and people willing to invest in downtown, it keeps growing,” he said. “What’s going to be happening downtown, I feel for the first time, our success is guaranteed because our money is committed to projects in the planning stages. What you’re asking for is going to be a key part to our success.
“It’s all got to work together,” he said. “It’s all happening right now. I believe in two years, in three years, we’re going to be that success story.”
“Your successes are my successes,” Wright said. If you don’t do good, I don’t do good. Everyone here is invested. It’s not you against us, us against you. We’ll work with you, and we hope you’ll work with us.”