Connecticut police chiefs: Withholding federal funds jeopardizing public safety

MIDDLETOWN — Law enforcement officials from around the state gathered this week for a roundtable discussion with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about holdups in federal funding that is needed to improve their efforts to fight crime.

Most of the talk during the 45-minute session at Middletown police headquarters centered on substantial cuts over the last decade in municipal and state budgets that have forced chiefs of police and troopers to slash services and training as a result of increasingly dwindling funding.

About 22 chiefs from across the state, including New London, Manchester, Roxbury, East Windsor, Groton, Seymour and Wilton, attended the forum, part of Murphy’s ongoing Conversations Around Connecticut.

Tools for fighting the opioid crisis, enough officers to perform essential duties, dollars for specialized task forces and getting the right type of security in place at schools were the main topics of discussion.

“There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt about what’s going to happen to the [Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance federal policing] grants, the future of immigration policies, and so-called sanctuary cities. [The federal Department of Justice] knows we’re in compliance, but that hasn’t stopped them from being really slow in moving some of this federal money out,” Murphy said.

Murphy, a member of the Appropriations Committee, helped secure $275.5 million in Community Oriented Policing Services grants in the latest federal budget bill, which many chiefs hoped to use to help hire and train new officers.

The inability to hire and train officers and provide them with essential resources to perform their jobs is a large problem with significant repercussions, many said.

Most recently, the feds haven’t dispensed promised Byrne funding because some communities have declared themselves sanctuary cities, including Middletown.

Last February, Mayor Dan Drew said city police won’t carry out the job of the U.S. government by enforcing federal immigration laws. New Haven, Hartford and Willimantic are among municipalities doing the same in direct response to President Donald Trump’s executive order signed just after he took office.

Murphy told the police chiefs that he and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent letters to the DOJ to find out why Byrne dollars are in limbo.

Part of the problem is inefficiency, Murphy acknowledged, but the other reason is “they know that states are actually in compliance even though they claim states aren’t in compliance with immigration laws. The U.S. government is holding it back from all the states,” Murphy said, as a way of sending a message on immigration.

He then turned to personnel counts. “I know very little of the news is good.”

“Part of the problem is, when we put a hiring grant out, because most of us aren’t up to our maximum staff, we don’t qualify for the additional resources. We can’t supplant the money to get us up to that staffing level,” said New London Police Chief Pete Reichard, whose force is operating with 12 less officers.

Murphy said that’s how the federal government “supplements but not supplants” police budgets.

“Most departments are maintaining inadequate staffing levels to respond to calls, but all your specialized services: officers in the schools and narcotics task forces, the community policing where you have officers dedicated to handle things outside of patrol doing enhanced services, said Seymour Chief Michael Metzler. “We’re not providing services because we don’t have the personnel.”

Murphy then asked for suggestions on how he can communicate more effectively with the DOJ on the opioid epidemic.

“The opioid problem drives all the other issues that we’re seeing: larcenies, burglaries and so forth,” said Clinton Police Chief Vincent DeMaio. “Narcan is getting more and more expensive. They now understand it’s doing something, so the prices keep going up on that.”

Purchasing enough of this drug, which can help reverse an overdose, is difficult to do on a limited budget.

But it’s vitally needed, he said.

“One of the challenges we’re facing dealing with opioids is field testing, and many of use have worked with local prosecutors to try to avoid that,” said Chief L.J. Fusaro of Groton.

“When you’re mixing opioids with fentanyl, all these hazardous chemicals that we’re exposing our officers [are the same ones that are] making people sick. It’s killing people and we’re expecting our cops to test it,” he added.

Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy presented a fact the public may not know, though officials seemed all too familiar with repercussions from these cuts: “It’s not just the state police — now we have to pay for cadets we send to the academy, and now they’ve got to come with a ream of paper: The state’s not going to pay for it,” he said. “I’m not joking.”

Turning to school safety, Murphy referenced the Parkland shootings on Feb. 14.

Has there been a greater demand for SROs in response to the mass shooting that killed 17 people, he asked the chiefs.

“No doubt” and other emphatic replies echoed around the room.

“Everybody wants it, but they don’t want to pay for it,” DeMaio said.

DeMaio said SROs are vital in tense and highly dangerous situations at schools.

“When you look at the data on school shootings, most of them come armed, they come with heavy weapons. As an end game, you need a trained officer in there,” DeMaio said.

“A security guard is going to be one of the first guys in the body count. That’s a mere fact. Obviously, you don’t want to say that at a council meeting but the truth is the truth.”

Attorneys who represent boards of education have told Windsor Police Chief Donald Melanson that videos of student incidents are not being shared because of privacy rules, he said.

“It shows the student beating up another kid —they’re not going to release it, so it creates a whole conflict between like organizations that have the best interests in mind of the children,” Melanson said.

Murphy told those gathered he hopes to keep lines of communication open. “Hopefully we can get some of that money released so we can make your lives a little bit easier.”