To have police presence at all public and private Newtown schools, the department will need to bring 11 new officers into the fold, the Newtown Police Commission agreed at a special meeting Thursday night.
“With each passing week, we begin to get a better feeling of what the future will look like,” said commission chair Paul Mangiafico.
Six of Newtown’s 45 sworn officers are currently dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December. Some officers are overworked. Overtime is up and the department is still stretched thin, said commissioners.
“It’s taxed us out in so many ways,” said Captain Joe Rios. "On a weekly basis, we may have two officers out or up to seven … That forces the majority of the department to pick up the slack.”
Even before the shooting, the department didn't have as many officers as they should for a town the size of Newtown, according to Chief Michael Kehoe, who said the FBI recommends two officers per 1,000 people. With 11 new officers, the department would have 56 police – a “minimum,” commissioners said, but enough to put one School Resource Officer (SRO) at each school in Newtown, including elementary schools and three private schools. On Thursday, the Board of Education approved a request to police asking for just that. But numerous hurdles remain before the commission can approve the result -- not least the price tag.
“Let’s not let the safety of the students be dictated by accounting.”
Adding a single police officer, equipped and uniformed, to the town’s payroll would increase the budget by about $92,000 per year, commission member Joel Faxon said. The commission’s recommendations also include four new patrol cars and an additional civilian staff member. All told, the price tag would be about $1.2 million.
“Children are children,” Kehoe said. “And we have an obligation to protect everyone in the community. And we will.”
The move acts only as a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Legislative Council. The department has already submitted its budget to the town – a budget that has rapidly become anachronistic in the wake of the shootings. Kehoe said some grant money may eventually become available, but commission members agreed the move is an important step regardless of funding source.
"I don’t think if we should be concerned with where the money’s coming from," said Mangiafico. "We should be concerned to do what’s correct. Let’s not let the safety of the students be dictated by accounting."
At present, two police officers monitor every school in Newtown, and have since the beginning of 2013. But many of those officers are out-of-towners being paid per diem, Faxon said. Commissioner Brian Budd called this measure a “Band-Aid.”
“One day you got an officer from Weston, the next an officer from Easton. Their omnipresence is important, but they don’t know the regular routine.”
“You can’t just go to Monster.com and hire a police officer.”
Another concern: the unlikelihood that 11 officers could actually be brought in within 2013.
“I’ve had any number of people come up and say we ought to get two or three officers on the streets in the next couple weeks,” said Mangiafico. “But most people don’t have any idea what it takes to hire a police officer.”
Even a single new hire can be a slow crawl for any Connecticut police department, let alone one with circumstances like Newtown. New hires must go through a rigorous process that combines screening, training (both in the state police academy and on the ground) and waiting – all told, a process that takes somewhere in the area of a year.
“You can’t just go to Monster.com and hire a police officer,” Faxon said.
Thanks to economic hardships, the state reduced classes at the police academy, limiting the number of seats available. Then there’s the background checks, which Budd said only one to three of every 10 applicants pass.
“It’s very difficult to get qualified candidates,” he said. “And for our community, we’ll only take qualified candidates.”
For the most part, the department can’t just bring retired officers back in the fold – after three years of inactivity, the process resets itself and even veteran cops would have to repeat the lengthy training process.
Similarly, the department can’t bring in officers from out-of-state, Kehoe said.
“We could certainly hire officers from other departments [in-state], though,” he said. “Certainly that’s a better option. You still have to do some things – make sure they’re a good fit, investigate them … So it could still take months.”
“Things have changed in this town.”
A group of parents who had previously attended the Board of Education's meetings on Security Resource Officers came to register their support. Some, including members of the Head O' Meadow PTA, advocated for at least two SROs at each school, but indicated they would back any measures and schools police felt necessary.
"I hope you outline [additional SROs] as something you’re looking for," said parent Michelle Hankin. "Parents are behind the schools, and behind the police departments."
Mangiafico told the commission he will write letters to town and education officials outlining the requests and their costs. First Selectman Pat Llodra is awaiting reports from the town's security committee.
"She'll be folding everything together," Mangiafico said, "Then they'll see where they go from there."
Commissioners admitted the request may not pass every hurdle necessary to become a reality. But they remain optimistic -- and unwavering.
“Things have changed in this town,” said Mangiafico after the commission reached their decison. “We should be promoting and recommending what we believe is needed. And if those authorities decide they don’t want to do it, they bear that burden.”