‘They behaved until they didn’t behave:’ Milford’s chief details summer staffing struggles

MILFORD — After the incident at Walnut Beach, Milford Mayor Ben Blake said the city has responded by enhancing the perimeter around Walnut Beach and bringing on new parking restrictions.

“We did this to lock the area down a little bit more to make sure that the adjustments in personnel and staff to maintain that beach would be more successful,” said Blake.

Milford Police Chief Keith Mello said years ago, police officers would work the beaches, and then Milford beaches became quiet.

“We would patrol the beaches but never had to staff the beaches,” he said. “In late May and early June of 2020, we saw an uptick at the beaches in disorderly conduct, and we saw a lot of out-of-towner activity.”

Mello said they assumed it had a lot to do with the lockdown and people wanting to spend more time outdoors.

“It’s a destination, and it’s a gorgeous beach, with the boardwalk, the pier and its connection with Silver Sands,” he said. “It’s also easy to access. And so we dealt with the same at the beginning of the season. We responded and dealt with those issues.”

The following year, they assumed they were going to have similar conduct, so additional officers were placed at the beaches.

“We had a good size staff, but we still dealt with people coming to the beach and behaving badly,” said Mello. “You can have 10,000 people at the Post Mall and have one police officer, and it’s fine until it’s not fine. And that’s the same thing that applies to the beaches when people want to behave badly.”

Mello stated in the post-George Floyd-era, police are facing a significant amount of challenges, and policing is quite different.

“Any police officer who saw that and wasn’t appalled by that shouldn’t be a police officer,” he said. “At the same time, they were all being placed into that same bucket. That has had an impact.”

George Floyd was a Black man killed in 2020 by a white police officer later convicted of numerous charges, including violating Floyd’s civil rights with his assault.

When the incident happened at Walnut Beach, Mello said they saw a disregard for any requests, demands or commands from the crowd.

“We saw a lot of disrespect and hostility towards the police, and we had to put more resources into that, and we were able to stabilize that. Once the summer had to kick in and put more resources in there, we saw that started to dissipate.”

To address disorderly conduct they anticipate might happen again, Mello said they have done a couple of things.

“If we are putting police officers down at the beach, they are addressing parking issues, and we also had to maintain coverage throughout the rest of the city, and that became a challenge,” he said. “We put in place four seasonal temporary parking enforcement officers.”

The temporary enforcement officers don’t have police authority but will alleviate a few hours a day from police officers, said Mello.

“We also put money in the overtime budget to hire more police officers,” he said. “It’s important to remember when you’re putting that many officers on the beach, you are taking them from somewhere else, and there are so many officers that are on patrol.”

Mello detailed a stat to the Board of Aldermen on the number of times Milford police officers have interrupted potential robberies and stolen cars. He said in 2018-19, pre-COVID, there were zero robberies and stolen cars, and in the last 12 months, there were 33.

“These are important statistics because these are safety issues and serious crimes. We have got to maintain a presence on the Boston Post Road,” he said. “We have got to make sure people can see to make them feel safe and prevent crime and things that you don’t see to catch those who are creating crime.”

This year was unique not just for local police but for police departments across the state and nation, as police officers are not taking the jobs, Mello noted.

“The money was there and is still there. Police officers are being ordered in and held over to the point where they are becoming burnt out and tired and don’t want to sign for these jobs,” he said.

Mello said at the time of the altercation on Walnut Beach they weren’t aware of the first social media post promoting the beach party at Walnut Beach.

“They came in droves, and they behaved until they didn’t behave,” he said. “When the fight broke out, more fights broke out, and what you see is only, what you see in the camera, but other things are happening around. Then there’s a limited number of police officers who have to go into this crowd which is now a different environment.”

They were able to intercept the public social media accounts of the organizers who said they were coming to the beach and they didn’t care about the police officers Mello told the board of aldermen.

“But they didn’t because we took every available police officer that day and we put them at the beach, but that is not sustainable,” he said.

“Although we had 42 police officers there, they still faced challenges. They were surprised,” Mello added.

He said a reason they can’t keep dipping into resources is that it impacts the back end of policing like analyzing data.

“You can’t see all those resources at the beach and not understand that there are other places in the community where people have an expectation,” said Mello. “They want strong response rates. They want to know somebody is out there and their complaints are being addressed.”

Mello said they had to restructure the agency to address the lack of patrol officers.

“We took four detectives out of the detective bureau, we took one person out of traffic, and those requests haven't slowed down,” he said. “We took two people out of federal task forces, we’ve never done that in 30 years. We took somebody in community policing. We put those resources on patrol. They’ll go back when this class graduates in December, but we need to get through the summer to address the problems we are facing.”