NEW HAVEN — The fiscal impact of blue exodus from the city has long tentacles.
“Officers are working longer shifts, working doubles, being held over” because of the officer shortage, Interim Police Chief Otoniel Reyes told an aldermanic committee. “We’re forcing people to work overtime, but we’re trying to find ways to mitigate that.”
Although the department’s budget was determined mostly by his predecessor — albeit with his input — Reyes presented the city’s police budget for fiscal year 2019-20 to the committee.
The budget was of particular interest to alders because of the high overtime costs, which leadership has described as a byproduct of a depleted staff as officers leave the force to go to other municipalities.
As of early February, there were 377 officers on the force, down from 495 budgeted positions, with police leaving for departments that offer better pay.
In the proposed budget, overtime accounts for about $7 million of the $45.9 million police spending plan, or 15.6 percent. That budgeted number is still lower than the end-of-year projected total for the cost of overtime in the current fiscal year, which is just short of $8 million.
“People are wearing multiple hats; we’re trying to streamline more responsibilities, but we’re also just paying attention more and looking at every single overtime,” Reyes told the alders. “Some things were slipping through the cracks.”
Regarding staff shortages, Reyes said the department would do more with less, cutting the number of employees in the department from 495 to 434. He said the number was developed by taking averages.
Alder Anna Festa, D-10, proposed an audit of how many officers are needed to adequately patrol the city’s streets, and Reyes said he would welcome one.
Reyes said he believes burnout is a problem on the force, as a shortage caused by officers leaving the department leads to remaining officers working longer hours and more shifts. He said he recently had done an exit interview with an officer headed to Stamford who began crying. The officer said he regrets choosing to leave New Haven, but his decision was based on money and the uncertainty of the union contract, which expired three years ago.
Assistant Chief Herbert Johnson, who has 21 years on the job, retired this month, joining former Chief Anthony Campbell as an investigator in the office of New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin. Campbell left the department in March over proposed changes in health coverage for police retirees.
Alder Dave Reyes, D-5, asked what had changed since his childhood when being a cop or a firefighter seemed to be a common aspiration for young people.
“Social media,” said Reyes. “You tend to hear the negatives a lot more resoundingly than you do the positives, and it certainly plays in the psyche of any young person.”
He said the department will need to evolve and account for generational changes.
“We need to really take a look at how we retain our officers,” Reyes said.
The manner in which New Haven officers handled a police story that has been widespread on social media is a point of departmental pride for Reyes: the way officers handled protests following the police shooting of Stephanie Washington, who was in a car with her boyfriend, Paul Witherspoon, when a Hamden officer and Yale officer fired multiple shots at it.
Reyes said the city’s officers created a safe environment for people to “express themselves” while protesting the actions of Yale and Hamden police, who responded to a report of an alleged robbery attempt on April 16 and shot at the unarmed couple.