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Finizio proposes eliminating New London K-9 program

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: theday.com

Published April 23. 2012 10:00PM   Updated April 24. 2012 12:40PM
Mayor says thousands would be saved, but union head calls move a personal attack

New London — Saying it disproportionately targets racial minorities and cutting it could save the city $100,000 next fiscal year, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has recommended eliminating the police department's K-9 program.

Finizio wrote in an April 19 memo to City Councilor Adam Sprecace that following a review of the program, acting upon the recommendation of police Chief Margaret Ackley and because he "has had several reservations about this program's operational and cost effectiveness ... the line items related to this program can, and should, be cut."

The K-9 program, which currently includes three police dogs, is projected to cost $77,000 in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Councilor Sprecace asked for the review after the program was discussed at an April 10 Public Safety Committee meeting. The City Council's Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss the police department's budget tonight.

Council President Michael Passero said Monday he was "not getting the sense the council supports eliminating the program."

"I don't see that they're going to achieve any real savings, and I've always understood it to be an important law enforcement tool," Passero said. "There's been a public outcry since the administration's position (to eliminate the program) has been made public."

Finizio said in his memo that the program is "not a necessity" and that the program currently has "a significant dispirit racial impact." He referenced statistics provided by his executive assistant, Zak Leavy, that show minorities were bitten by police dogs in 16 out of 18 incidences between 2009 and 2011.

"It is my conclusion that the NLPD K-9 program is one such expenditure where a cut can result in significant savings while not negatively impacting public safety and, indeed, while strengthening the City's commitment to civil rights," Finizio wrote.

Finizio recommended a "temporary suspension" of the program, and Monday, he said the program could possibly "start from scratch" in the future.

Police union President Todd Lynch, who has been an outspoken critic of police Chief Margaret Ackley and last month sued the chief and city, runs the K-9 program.

On Monday, Lynch, who has been with the department since 2007, said the proposed cut is a "personal attack" on him and alleged the budgeted numbers for the program are inflated.

He said the proposed budget appropriation of $77,000 is "blown up" and not a realistic assessment of the costs. It covers four dogs though the city only utilizes three, he said. Norwich, which has three dogs, has budgeted $18,000 for its K-9 program.

"So why is ours $77,000?" Lynch said. "Because (Ackley) wants it to be $77,000."

Lynch, who has served as a police dog handler since 1989 and once served as the head K-9 trainer for the Connecticut State Police, said he was never consulted during the mayor's review.

"It is the most transparent, vindictive attack on a single individual, meaning myself, without any consideration or care toward the public safety of the community members or the police officers," Lynch said. "What they need to know is, whether I have a dog or not, I'll be at work the next day and they're not going to hush me. I'm not going anywhere."

Finizio's review of the program, which he forwarded to Sprecace along with his memo, includes a letter from Ackley, who wrote that the "review of K-9 bites over the past three years is very concerning in the appearance of racial disparity."

Lynch said the department conducts an investigation into each dog-bite incident. Each time, the shift commander, patrol commander and chief are required to review the report, he said.

"(Ackley) has signed off on every one as 'appropriate use of force' and now she's questioning those very use of forces, whether it's race or biting dogs?" Lynch said. "In my mind, it is no more than hypocritical. She signed them off as OK, and then later on, she's going to use them against us?"

Lynch said nearly every surrounding municipality has a K-9 program. But he said it was unrealistic for the city to rely on other departments each time it finds itself needing a police dog, as Finizio suggested in his memo.

Lynch said he puts Jasper, his German shepherd, to work about 30 times per month.

"Do you think East Lyme is going to send their dog here 90 times per month?" Lynch said. "How old is that going to get? And things happen fast in this city. These people don't sit under a porch and wait for you. They run."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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