HARTFORD — Hartford continues to lose newer police officers to neighboring communities and struggle with low morale on the force six months after those issues were spelled out in an independent study of the department, a recent memo shows.
Those were the conclusions of a focus group of patrol officers, something the department formed at the recommendation of criminal justice researchers who studied the department’s climate in 2019 and 2020.
Their report, released last September, cautioned that Hartford was losing many of its new officers to surrounding towns. Department data show the problem has only gotten worse, with 13 patrol officers of a force of about 400 leaving in the past three months.
A March 1 memo by a supervising sergeant reported that low pay and benefits are the largest driving factor in the low morale of patrol staff, and that the numerous departures have forced the remaining patrol officers to work extra shifts “at an alarming rate never before seen.”
Police Chief Jason Thody says the report will be used to improve the working conditions and culture of the department.
“If we are to embrace the challenge of changing for the better, we must be willing to invite and openly accept criticism,” he said.
The department has been working to implement dozens of recommendations from the climate study, which was released in September 2020. The formation of an officer task force was one of the ideas researchers had for the department to improve recruitment, ease tensions among officers and support the overextended patrol division.
The new memo from Sgt. Giovanni DiCenso summarizes the focus group’s findings and describes a patrol staff crushed both by existential worries over politics and police reform and the daily affronts of their heavy, high-risk workloads, which pay thousands of dollars less than patrol jobs in neighboring towns.
In part driven by that low pay, 14 officers — all but one from patrol — have resigned since Jan. 1, according to police chief of staff Lt. John Lee. That’s a dramatic spike even considering that voluntary resignations have been on the rise for several years.
Twenty-one officers resigned in all of 2020, including 14 from patrol, Lee said. That was up from 16 total departures in 2019, 13 in 2018, six in 2017 and two in 2016, according to the climate study.
The recent vacancies have left the remaining patrol staff with numerous empty shifts to fill on top of their regular schedules.
Newer cops are made to take most of those extra shifts — “sometimes numerous times during the week” — fueling worries that they will be so tired and overworked that they make poor decisions on the job, according to the memo, which DiCenso was tasked with preparing for Capt. Michael Coates.
“A common line used by officers who have left Hartford is ‘After all the risk, there’s no reward to stay in Hartford,’ ” DiCenso wrote on behalf of the focus group.
Hartford Police Union president Anthony Rinaldi made the same point Thursday, saying “being overworked may cause members to make mistakes that normally would not happen.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said he was deeply grateful to the city’s officers for tremendous work during a challenging year. He said it was important to get their “unvarnished” feedback and that the city will continue to recruit new officers.
“While we still have dozens more officers than we had a few years ago, there’s no question that it’s hurt to have a number of our younger officers leave for better pay in suburban towns,” Bronin said.
Thody says attrition has been a growing issue for Hartford police and many departments across the country, for various reasons.
The patrol officers in Hartford, though, placed the blame squarely on pay and benefits.
Patrol officers in Hartford make a maximum base salary of $71,500 a year, far lower than salaries DiCenso pulled from online recruitment pages for a number of suburban towns, from $81,000 a year in East Hartford to $95,000 in Rocky Hill and Simsbury.
East Hartford police recently hired four officers away from the capital city’s force, with a spokesman acknowledging the town’s pension and other benefits were “definitely advantageous” in attracting top-tier candidates.
The hit to Hartford is significant. Losing an officer with three years of experience may cost an agency more than twice his or her salary, according to a 2002 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Lt. Rodriguez-Velez, commander of the career development division, told DiCenso the main reason officers give for leaving is low pay. Rodriguez-Velez says she spoke to about two dozen officers who have left since 2020 and they said they were receiving pay raises of up to $20,000 by moving to another police department.
Officers also complained that the cost of a traditional health insurance plan has tripled in recent years, outpacing the 2% raise all department employees received last July, per their collective bargaining agreement. A family plan that cost $56 a week in 2017 now costs $156 a week, the memo states.
Hartford officers will receive another 2% raise this summer.
The group also reported many officers were worried about the city’s new Police Accountability Review Board, which will make recommendations for police reforms, and the Civilian Police Review Board, which investigates cases of officer misconduct.
Those concerns can be alleviated with more education, the focus group added.
Other problems run deeper. The group pointed to changes in disciplinary practices, saying minor violations that used to be handled informally are now being punished with formal discipline.
The focus group thought there were political reasons for the crackdown, saying it felt like the police administration was “looking for minor violations to discipline them, to keep up statistics.”
Officers in the focus group identified a number of other conditions they want to see improved, from burnout among senior officers to the state of the spare, old Ford Crown Victorias they are left to drive when the main patrol cruisers are “deadlined,” or out of commission for repairs.
Some of the spares have torn and uncomfortable seats, “very dirty” interiors and broken equipment, the memo said.
When Hartford police buy new vehicles, they are typically assigned to the command staff, who spend less time driving and therefore put less wear on the cars. Their previous vehicles are passed down through the ranks until they reach the patrol division, where they are most likely to be damaged in the course of an officer’s normal duties.
In 2019, the police department spent $535,000 to buy 10 new Chevy Tahoes and five new Ford Interceptors. The city didn’t have any budget for vehicle replacements the two fiscal years prior, but the police department still acquired six cruisers at no cost, according to an inventory provided in 2019. In 2016, the department bought 32 cruisers, eight SUVs and two trucks.
The city did not have any vehicle replacement budget in 2017 or 2018. In 2019, the police department received $535,000 to replace vehicles and spent that on new Chevrolet Tahoes.
However, the focus group reported feeling like “bandages are being placed on vehicles and returned to be used by the patrol officers, making them feel unsafe.”
The focus group offered its own recommendations to each of the various problems, including suggesting the department buy used patrol cars from surrounding towns, rotate officers through lighter assignments and limit patrol officers to working one extra shift per week.