NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Police Department is starting to get into “a little bit of a predicament,” said Lt. David O’Connor, president of Police Union Local 1727.
O’Connor called NoN on Tuesday to elaborate on the issue of the day: NPD has shifted officers out of specialty units and onto patrol because retirements, injuries and resignations have stretched the department’s manpower thin, according to Deputy Norwalk Police Chief Susan Zecca and others.
“I’ve been told that there are with all likelihood three other officers who are going to be leaving before the end of the year,” O’Connor said. “…These are all young people who are just leaving policing or are not interested in the Norwalk Police Department because of the time constraints that it places on you.”
With 181 officers authorized, the department is down to 166 sworn officers, Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said Monday. The dip is attributed to retirements and resignations, but six recruits are set to enter the police academy in January, according to Deputy Chief James Walsh.
O’Connor said Tuesday that six seats are reserved in the academy but “whether or not going to be able to get six quality applicants to staff those six seats, I don’t know.”
Conditional offers have been made but those candidates have to pass background checks, polygraph tests and other hurdles, he said.
Kulhawik wrote, “We requested 6 spots in the academy for January we have not had that confirmed as yet.”
O’Connor said, “I was told that we have had 12 officers resign since in the last year. Four them have been disciplinary issues. The remainder have either been people who are going to retire in the next couple of years, who left early, or people who gave up and didn’t want to be cops anymore.”
“I show 11 resignations and 5 retirements this year,” Kulhawik wrote.
O’Connor had spoken of the younger generation’s approach to life, Millennials who “would rather have time away from work than a pay raise,” who may not like the current environment, police accountability or “are not cut out for the demands that the job places on you and your family and your social life and your personal life.”
As for the three officers that may leave soon, “They’re good solid police officers,” he said Tuesday. “They just are getting tired of always being here and always ordered in, always ordered to duty, even though the contract says you’re only supposed to be ordered in twice a week. They might voluntarily take a hire on Monday and Tuesday to help out… And then they get ordered in Friday and Saturday. Well now they’re up to four times in a week. Even though he really didn’t intend on being there four times in a week.”
That’s because of the staffing shortage, he said.
“So we’re in a tough spot. We’ll get out of it – it’s not going to destroy the police department, we’ll get out of it. We’re in the same predicament every other police department the state of Connecticut is in. We’re all having the same problems.”
Stamford is also dealing with an exodus. After a wave of retirements, the department was looking to hire up to 32 new officers, the Stamford Advocate reported in August.
An NPR story published in July said “historic calls for police accountability, reform and attempts at racial reckoning have left police departments nationwide struggling to keep the officers they have and attract new ones to the force.”
Seattle is offering bonuses for new officers, but it’s unclear whether this will work because other Washington police departments are doing the same thing, KING5 News reported Nov. 1.
“Lateral” transfers can solve a police department’s problems, as the officers have already worked in other communities and can step into the Norwalk Police Department ready to go, while recruits need up to 40 weeks of training before they’re out in a unit on their own, police say.
O’Connor said he’d heard 26 officers took NPD’s new test for lateral officers within the last 10 days but hadn’t had a chance to talk to Kulhawik about it.
“We have no way of knowing how many certified officers took the CPCA test,” Kulhawik wrote to NancyOnNorwalk. “We only know that one new certified officer has applied since that test was given.”
Kulhawik said an officer had recently transferred in from Trumbull. That was after two Bridgeport officers resigned after one day on the job in Norwalk, after the public questioned their backgrounds.
O’Connor said the officers out on workman’s comp have serious injuries. One has a broken leg, one has a back injury and another has a leg injury.
“It is questionable whether or not these people are going to heal well enough to come back to work. These are significant injuries,” he said.
O’Connor said “hopefully,” the department will fill its vacancies and, “Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that they’re lowering the standards for expediency.”
‘Responsibility to put a team in the field’
For context on the department’s strength, look to other area cities: Stamford’s police department’s “optimal capacity” is 287 police officers, the Advocate quotes Assistant Police Chief Silas Redd as saying. Danbury has an authorized strength of 154 sworn officers, according to the City’s website.
The U.S. Census estimates that Norwalk’s population was 88,816 on July 1, 2019. Danbury had 84,694 residents on that date and Stamford had 129,638.
By those figures, Stamford ideally has one officer per 451.7 residents, Norwalk has one officer per 491 residents (when the department is at maximum strength) and Danbury has one officer per 550 residents.
With Norwalk down to 166 officers (counting those on workman’s comp), it’s one officer per 535 residents.
Zecca said the department has pulled officers out of specialty units and put them into patrol, responding to calls for service and emergencies.
“We have a responsibility to put a team in the field to respond to basic patrol services in our primary mission,” O’Connor said. “They’re doing the best they can.”
Norwalk resident Larry Losio recently asked if it is time for the City to consider establishing a team of “Traffic Agents” to cover extra duty assignments instead of police officers.
“Having traffic agents would be a contractual issue,” Zecca said. “So it’s not something we could just do. That would be something that would need to be negotiated with the union.”
Westport hires retired officers and others to serve as traffic agents but it’s not a full-time job, it’s “as needed,” she said.
DiMeglio and Laudano
Two of the four officers who resigned due to disciplinary issues are Officers Michael DiMeglio and Sarah Laudano, due to their arrests on charges of second degree larceny and reckless endangerment. Laudano was also charged with risk of injury to a child.
“Their fate was forecast long before and the City had no other avenue to pursue besides separating them from the City,” O’Connor said. “I don’t blame (the administration) for what they did, that had to get done. I wish it worked out a different way. I really do. … We had very little hand to play with that… any more than we were in position to other officers who resigned under some duress.”
Resignation is always preferable over termination from the City’s point of view, because there’s no appeal, no “very long drawn-out arbitration process that could cost a lot of time and a lot of money,” O’Connor said.
In other eras, Laudano and DiMeglio could have been “rehabilitated,” but “in the public eye, it was considered such a betrayal that there was little that could be done to really rehabilitate their image,” he said.
“I’m a little biased,” O’Connor said. “I would have liked to have seen them come back to work after a significant discipline. I would not have I would not have balked if they said ‘you’re suspended for a year,’ would not have balked one bit if they said you know, ‘a whole bunch of other milestones that they had to meet on a regular basis to rehabilitate themselves.’”
He thought arresting them was “a little heavy handed,” but “they did what they did,” he said. It’s “still working through the court system. Apparently there is a plea bargain offer that is being bantered about right now.”
No one won in that situation, he said. “I wish I could have intervened earlier. So that we didn’t get to this point with them. But you know, it’s sort of you know, it was very Romeo and Juliet-ish… Everyone’s suffered. The city suffered. The community suffered. We all in the police department certainly suffered. The union was embarrassed by their behavior. So who was the big winner here? Nobody.”