OLD SAYBROOK — Over the protests of Police Chief Michael Spera, the Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday to recommend an independent organizational climate study of the town’s police department.
The study was in response to an earlier recommendation from the Police Commission that, at Spera’s request, asked the town to address the department’s chronic shortage of police officers with a series of hiring bonuses, salary increases and improved pensions and benefits.
First Selectman Carl Fortuna said he wanted to clearly identify the source of the department’s challenges with recruitment and retention before making any recommended changes.
“I think committing millions of dollars over the course of a decade, potentially — which may be well-deserved — we need to go into it with our eyes wide open, and not rely on the chief’s information, because I don’t know that we want to do all that research again,” he said.
He noted that giving every officer a $10,000 raise as Spera proposed would cost around $180,000, and that modifying the pension and benefits for officers would cost the town far more in the long term.
“We need to be sure, as the Board of Selectmen, as first selectman, when I go into negotiations, that when we start talking about seven figures … we need to know what’s going to solve what we’re viewing as a retention issue.”
At the meeting, Spera accused Fortuna of proposing the study “as retaliation against me and the members of the police department for bringing to light the poor compensation, substandard employee benefits, and insufficient post employment benefits of our dedicated police officers.”
He pointed out that police forces across the country were struggling to attract and retain police officers, and that the town should follow in the footsteps of other departments that had already provided financial incentives for officers.
“They are not conducting studies to prove what is known. They are using funds to take action,” he said.
Spera acknowledged that he might be the cause of some of the turnover in Old Saybrook, but only because he had high standards for his employees. He criticized the study’s proposal to speak with former officers in the department.
“The proposed approaches seem to favor the opinions of those that have left, many of which could not meet workplace or performance standards, over the thoughts of our current staff, who show up to work in Old Saybrook every single day,” he said, warning that this could create an atmosphere where supervisors were more reluctant to discipline employees.
But Fortuna said the town had first asked for a turnover study back in 2021, before there was a widespread national shortage of officers. He noted that, between the summer of 2022 and the summer of 2023, the department had lost 12 officers.
“As my title in town is chief administrative officer, I don’t know how my attention, if I were a robot, doesn’t go to that department due to that,” he said.
Old Saybrook Police Union President Ryan Walsh said they’re in the process of creating a new union to work with the administration and town on recruitment and retention. He pointed out that the town of Vernon had recently signed its police contract with a focus on recruitment and retention, including raises for officers.
“There’s 20-something of us over at the police department that are heavily invested day to day with our lives, working for the town, working for the department. We’re the crucial people that are there now. You need to focus on us,” he said. “If you move forward with the study, think about the officers that are there and what we need, how to make it better, how we can bring more people in.”
Police Commissioner Carol Manning said she was in favor of the study, adding that Fortuna needed data as he prepared for upcoming negotiations with the police union.
“This commission — the current one — has been asking for an independent look at the department for almost two years,” Manning said. “I’m pleased, as an individual and as an outgoing commissioner, that the ask that we made for a consultant has finally reached the level of the Board of Selectmen.”
Police Commission Chair Chub Wilcox and Commissioner Jill Notar-Francesco also voiced their support for the study. Wilcox said while he believed Spera “does virtually everything right,” he believed it would be valuable to identify areas where the department could improve.
“The Police Commission recommended some very substantial modifications to the pay and benefit package for our uniformed officers. We think that is important. Personally, I understand why this board might want to do due diligence to assure itself that that would solve the problem,” Wilcox said.
The board ultimately voted to recommend that the Police Commission hire the consulting firm CLAConnect for the organizational climate study. The proposal states that the firm will “closely and objectively examine” the department’s human resources and management practices, interview management, current and former employees, and review internal affairs, grievances and complaints.
The firm has done reviews of multiple police departments in Connecticut, including Greenwich, Westport, Bristol, Hartford and Stonington. According to their proposal, firm principal Frank Rudewicz was a member of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Police Reform Task Force and has served as an independent investigator for police agencies.
Selectman Matt Pugliese also voiced his support, saying he thought the study would help the community, and he did not view it as retaliatory.
“I support labor. I support our rank and file, town servants, our civil servants, our police officers. And I understand that we’re dealing with a complex environment and challenges,” he said. “We’re making a decision right now that is going to impact the budget of the town, the operations of the town moving forward over the next several years.”
The Police Commission must now vote to approve hiring the consultant.