MERIDEN — City officials disagree over whether the City Council should approve Police Chief Jeffry Cossette’s request for $200,000 to restore five positions in the Neighborhood Initiative Unit.
While some believe reinstating the NI officers, who were reassigned to patrol due to budget cuts, is appropriate given what Cossette calls a recent uptick in violent crime, other officials questioned whether the spending is necessary.
Last week, Cossette told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee he wants to assign four NI officers to areas of the city with the highest call volume. Police believe there are about three to four individuals causing the recent rash of violent crime, said Cossette, who read off a list of nine incidents dating back to Nov. 1 at the meeting.
“They have the relationships, the connections, and the communication that will nip these things in the bud,” Cossette said of the NI officers, adding he believes the community policing unit was instrumental in helping stop a rash of gang shootings during the summer of 2016.
On Monday, the City Council is expected to refer Cossette’s request to the council’s Finance Committee. The resolution put forth by Mayor Kevin Scarpati and Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, would give Cossette $200,000 to restore four NI officers and one supervisor through the rest of fiscal year 2018-19.
Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet plans to vote against the resolution because he questions how much impact the NI officers would have on the recent violent crimes given that the city saw similar violence in past years while the NI unit was in operation. “The NI unit has been in place for 20 years and almost all of these issues that he’s talking about have been going on for 20 years,” said Brunet, a Republican.
We the People Councilor Joseph Carabetta III, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said that the NI unit was in place during the rash of gang shootings in the summer of 2016.
“Could it help? Yes, possibly,” Carabetta said “But will it solve it? No.”
“I’m not opposed nor do I support it,” Carabetta said of Cossette’s request.
Cossette told the Public Safety Committee that while the NI unit wouldn’t have prevented the recent shootings initially, having NI officers would help address the issue.
“It’s difficult to prevent the first couple (shootings) that occur,” Cossette said, “but once they occur and the intelligence network starts, and the connections start, we have a much better jump on solving the problem and getting the bad guys before they get out of hand.”
Democratic Councilor Larue Graham asked Cossette why patrol officers aren’t able to obtain intelligence that NI officers can. Cossette responded that residents are reluctant to give officers information without a familiarity and trust.
“It’s all about trust and it’s all about partnership and communication and that’s why community policing is successful,” Cossette said. “It’s not cheap, but it’s successful. And given the demographics of the city, it’s absolutely necessary in my opinion.”
Cossette’s request to restore NI officers received support at the meeting from Scarpati and City Manager Tim Coon, who was in charge of training for Connecticut municipal officers for 20 years before becoming city manager.
“The city is safe because of the actions of the chief, the deputy chief, and all the men and women in the PD. But if you were to ask me whether an NI initiative...is a good initiative, I’m going to say ‘yes.’ Not only yes, but ‘hell yes,’ because it pays dividends,” said Coon.
“We do have to work within the constraints of our budgets… but there are many ways to deal with this problem and I think the chief has proposed a valid approach,” Coon added.
Council Majority Leader David Lowell agreed with Cossette and Coon on the importance of proactive community policing, but said he would like to see the city develop a more cost-effective “hybrid” model for community policing that would integrate proactive community policing techniques used by NI officers with regular patrol duties.
Lowell envisions a model in which patrol officers perform some of the same proactive policing functions as NI officers while not responding to calls.
After the council and mayor cut over $400,000 from the police budget in late summer, Cossette reassigned all 12 members of the NI unit back to patrol, which Cossette said would cut down on overtime costs.
The more patrol officers Cossette has available, the less money he needs to pay in overtime to cover all the scheduled patrol shifts, he said.
Brunet argued Cossette could be doing a better job of allocating existing resources to address the rise in crime, rather than requesting funds for more NI officers. Brunet specifically objected to an incident in October in which five officers in the department’s Crime Suppression Unit followed a motorist in an unmarked car, ultimately shooting and injuring the motorist. The man who was shot has not been charged.
“We have 5 percent of our police force basically in one vehicle for one incident,” Brunet said at the committee meeting.
Cossette told Brunet “it’s unusual to have that many in a vehicle but (the officers) were working on a particular incident, issue at the time.” State Police are investigating the incident due to the officer-involved shooting.
Lowell and other officials said they were happy to hear Cossette say the city is safe at the committee meeting this week, despite the recent violence. Cossette also presented a five-year analysis of crime at the meeting that showed crimes have considerably decreased.
Residents who live in the area of Cook Avenue, where one of the shootings occurred, expressed confidence police will curtail the recent rash of violence.
Bronson Street resident James Ransom, who walks around his neighborhood daily with his wife, Largent, said he doesn’t feel less safe following the shooting.
“When shots are fired, nobody feels safe,” Cook Avenue resident Bernard Figueroa said. “But as far as the police trying to take control, I have confidence in the Meriden Police Department that they’ll get it together.”
Figueroa thinks the city could benefit from putting more officers, including NI officers, on the streets.
“With a lot of street stuff that goes on, the less police they see on the streets, it’s easier for them to go out there and do what they do,” he said.