Several current and former police officers rallied at on Tuesday to protest a proposal to cut the ’s K-9 program.
Mayor Daryl Finizio has suggested the possibility of eliminating the program as one way of reducing the department’s budget. He said the program is not an essential service and that he was concerned with a racial disparity in the data on dog bites.
The Finance Committee ultimately voted to recommend a $12,040,651 budget for the department, a reduction of $240,000. The recommendation includes the elimination of the deputy police chief position but leaves other cuts to the discretion of Police Chief Margaret Ackley.
The department has three K-9 units. Two are patrol dogs, with one cross-trained as a search and rescue dog and the other cross-trained as a drug-sniffing dog. The third dog is a bloodhound trained for tracking.
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A fourth K-9 was , former police officer Roger Newton, who resigned from the department following an accusation that he planted drugs on a suspect. Finizio has been criticized for selling the dog for $500 when it was bought with $6,000 raised at a fundraiser held by Michael Buscetto III, a former city councilor, mayoral candidate, and vocal critic of Ackley. Finizio said he considered that the sale was mutually acceptable to all parties and could avoid costly litigation.
Finizio said in a memo on the department’s K-9 program that he included funding for the program until it could be analyzed further, but determined that it was “not a necessity” for the city. He said he consulted with Ackley, as well as the city’s risk manager and law department, in making the recommendation and that elimination of the program would save the city $77,000 with at least $23,000 saved in ancillary costs.
Finizio said he was concerned with data on dog bites, which show that 16 out of 18 dog bites between 2009 and 2011 were on minority suspects. The risk manager told Finizio in a memo that dog bites are not a significant driver of liability claims, but that elimination of the program would “reduce the potential for claim severity.”
The elimination of the program could be temporary for the 2013 fiscal year, and Finizio said the city could evaluate the program and rely on neighboring departments for any K-9 services in the interim. First Selectman Dan Steward of Waterford was critical of this idea.
"We will continue to back them up, but for us to become their K-9 force, that can't happen," Steward told the Waterford Patch. "Our dogs go on a lot of calls in a month. There's no way I can fulfill the mission of a K-9 officer in New London."
Todd Lynch, the K-9 training officer at the department and president of the New London Police Union, said the department receives almost 90 calls a month where K-9s are used. He said the city would remain liable for any incidents involving a K-9 from an outside agency, and that the projected savings from eliminating the department are “extremely blown up.”
Lynch said he also considers the proposal to be vindictive. He has in her individual and municipal capacities charging retaliatory behavior against him for his support of Buscetto.
“It’s sad when politics and vengefulness can become more important than the safety of the public and our police officers,” he said.
Appeals to the committee
Jimmy Cortina, director of the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association, said most police departments are in the process of adding K-9s. He said about a dozen dogs were added in departments across the state in the past year.
“It’s just hard to believe,” said Cortina. “This is one of the most valuable tools that they have, and they want to get rid of it.”
During the public comment section of the Finance Committee meeting, several people also encouraged councilors to retain the program. Ken Edwards, a former member of the New London Police Department, said K-9s are important for the safety of officers and suspects since they are a non-lethal use of force.
“The bottom line is dogs keep officers from doing things that are incredibly risky,” he said.
Grant Plunkett questioned how much the department would save given the costs of contracting out and possibly starting up the program in the future.
“I don’t understand why we hired an investigator and want to cut back public safety,” he said.
Don Wilson, president of the New London Branch of the NAACP, supported elimination of the policy. He said there have been several incidents of excessive force with K-9s and that these have undermined public trust.
“This program, if continued, would just be another means to continue the injustice,” said Wilson.
Wilson said he would also like to see a cost assessment which takes into consideration estimates of legal claims involving dog bites.