OLD SAYBROOK - Anger, emotional pleas, and finally outrage was directed to the town's Police Commission on the evening of Jan. 14 after the panel voted 3 to 2 to not return two new patrolmen to the budget as Police Chief Michael Spera had requested.
The heart of the matter is providing police presence at schools to assuage fears of a Sandy Hook-style incident. Spera said he needed the two new positions (patrolmen 26 and 27), to put full-time (instead of half-time) school resource officer coverage in each school, though the Police Commission maintains that such coverage is possible with existing staffing.
Nearly 100 people-parents, town policemen and officials, interested citizens, and even a National Rifle Association representative-attended last Tuesday evening's Police Commission meeting held at the middle school.
Overwhelmingly, those who spoke-and many did-in the 90 minutes of public comment urged the Police Commission members to reconsider their Jan. 11 vote not to include the two new patrolmen in the proposed police budget.
At the Jan. 11 budget meeting, several commissioners explained they did not support the added officers because they believed that, with other resource allocations, the chief could still add more SRO coverage at the schools.
They based this view in part on other budget decisions the commission had made that would allow the chief to recapture between two and three patrolmen work-days each week. The commission had approved converting the information technology director position, now held by a sworn police officer, into civilian post. This move in turn would allow the chief to re-capture about two to three days of patrolmen shift-hours compared to the current year.
At the Jan. 14 meeting, however, the Police Commissioners spoke little and instead listened to the public comments asking that they change their prior budget vote about patrolmen staffing. Most of the public who spoke seemed unaware of the existing availability of extra patrol hours.
Typical of the many public comments at the Tuesday police budget meeting were those of Leslie Body.
"I'm dumbfounded that we're even having this conversation. You've rejected Chief Spera's proposal [for new patrolmen]. I know that these are tough times, but in rejecting these proposals, I don't think you've kept the best interests of the town in mind. I want you to do everything you can to keep our children safe," said Body.
Brenda Masseli agreed.
"You as elected officials are not thinking of our children's safety. Our children are not safe. School resource officers are not a frill in the budget," Masseli said. "Please support the extra officers to keep our precious children safe."
Sal D'Aquila went further in his remarks, suggesting that the commission's decision not to support the two additional patrolmen was political and personal.
"I know times are tough but we also have to protect our children," D'Aquila said. "The politicians are only worried about their cronies."
National Rifle Association of Connecticut representative Tom Violante said that while he knows that the budgets of local police departments like Old Saybrook are strained, the town's money would be well-spent if it were used to put armed police officers in the schools.
Following the first public comment period, the Police Commission conducted its business meeting and finalized the budget on which it would vote to send to the Board of Selectmen.
Before the final vote, Commissioner Richard Metsack made a motion to reverse the commission's prior decision and return two new patrolmen positions to the budget; this motion failed by a vote of 3 to 2 with Commissioner Dunlap absent. A second motion by Chairman Christina Burnham asked that the chief be allowed to re-allocate other administrative and staff salary funds approved to allow him to hire one new patrolman. This motion failed due to the lack of a second to the motion.
Then a third motion was made to adopt a proposed police department operating budget of $3,055,161 and the capital budget of $135,000 as previously discussed and voted upon by the commissioners on Jan. 11; this motion passed 4 to 1. Burnham voted "Nay."
Outraged parents then returned to the microphone one after another to express their disappointment with the commission's decision to not include the two new patrolmen and vowed to fight on. The meeting ended around 9 p.m.