A new initiative to foster communication between New Haven police officers and the communities they serve could be as simple as a tool in their back pockets: cell phones.
At the end of September, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp announced a plan to issue city cell phones to officers in each district so that residents can directly contact specific officers, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said. He noted that although the idea has been considered for years, the program is still in its infancy, with funding sources and specific policies yet to be determined.
“[The initiative] has been part of the landscape for as long as the mayor has been in office, which is two and a half years,” he said. “Whether a specific proposal was made right away, I can’t say, but it has been part of the mayor’s desire to expand community policing and to make neighborhood beat officers more accessible to residents and business owners; so, while the issue of cell phones is still not universal, it has been a goal for some time.”
A tight municipal budget is the proposal’s main obstacle, Grotheer said.
Grotheer said giving citizens direct contact with officers would make it possible to have an officer on the scene much faster. He added that residents should not expect officers to give out personal cell numbers, so a city-issued cell phone number would allow for more direct contact without compromising the privacy of officers.
Lieutenant Joseph Murgo, a public information officer at the East Haven Police Department, expressed the same concern about privacy. When officers use their personal phones while working, they could be subject to court subpoenas, he said.
There is precedent for a program similar to the cell phone initiative. Former New Haven police officer James Naccarato, now deputy chief of police at the East Haven Police Department, said New Haven officers in the 1990s had city-issued pagers for residents to contact them directly. Naccarato added that the program led to quick responses to routine calls, as citizens were able to bypass dispatch services.
The program was “by no means intended to replace 911,” Naccarato said, but residents were more likely to call officers with neighborhood concerns, helping the police communicate more effectively with community members. Although the pager program ended after New Haven police chief Nick Pastore retired in 1997, Naccarato said it was useful at the time.
Nearby, East Haven is now implementing a program similar to that proposed by Harp. East Haven currently gives city-issued cell phones to commanding and supervising officers but plans to expand the practice to include more officers, Naccarato said.
Grotheer said Harp’s proposal reflects her commitment to community-based policing because it allows residents to more easily contact police officers.
“[The initiative] includes police officers on walking beats getting to know community members and earning the trust and the confidence of community members so that the New Haven Police Department can become a part of each neighborhood and a larger community,” Grotheer said.
Joining their counterparts at the East Haven and Hamden precincts, officers in the New Haven Police Department could be patrolling the city with body cameras next year.
New Haven is currently applying for a state grant that would provide $500.000 in funds for body cams on all members of the police force, which numbers over 450. This development comes after a 90-day pilot program last fall, during which 27 police officers equipped themselves with body cams for a 90-day pilot program. If the grant goes through, the NHPD could have the cameras by spring of 2017, said Chief Anthony Campbell in a recent statement.
Still, NHPD Media Liaison David Hartman said, these plans are in their infancy, and the department has established no formal protocol regarding the camera’s usage.
“There are [no body cameras yet] purchased nor has there been a policy implemented on their use,” Hartman said.
The move by the New Haven department runs parallel to a recent nation and statewide effort to introduce police cameras. Last May, President Barack Obama and the United States Department of Justice launched the Body-Worn Camera Pilot Implementation Program, which allocated New Haven $90,000 of a $20 million national grant to implement such technology.
Nearby, the East Haven Police Department first began using body cams two years ago, and now uses 53. According to Lt. Joseph Murgo, the EHPD’s public information officer, officers are recommended to use them on routine calls and investigations. And during motor vehicle stops and calls leading to a possibility of arrest, officers must switch their cameras on.
“The overall sentiment is that the body cameras are a god send and we can’t believe we didn’t adopt the technology sooner,” Murgo said. “It has helped us in our investigations, and it has helped mitigate complaints. It also ensures both officer and civilians’ behavior is documented in an unbiased way.”
Footage from the cameras, which can be accessed with a Freedom of Information request, has been used in court disputes by both police and civilians. The footage also assists officers in providing an accurate police report and helps supervisors monitor the force’s behavior.
Still, members of the department were hesitant when first adopting body cameras, though officials as a whole now embrace them. Several local police departments have also already put body cameras in place or are in the process of acquiring them, such as in New Haven.
“Body cameras will be the norm in every police department in the next five to 10 years and soon we won’t know life without them,” Murgo said. “Once officers realize there are way more pros than cons, they will accept them.”
But according to a statement in August by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, only 12 of the over 100 law enforcement agencies in the state have applied for a state grant to pay for body cameras, suggesting that many departments are not yet ready for the change.
Nationwide, nearly 95 percent of major police departments plan to implement body cams in the near future, according to a survey conducted January by the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and Major County Sheriffs’ Association.
The Hamden and East Haven police departments use the Taser brand of body cameras.
As the New Haven Board of Aldermen voted this week to approve a new police contract with the city, firefighters continue to languish without an equivalent agreement. The police officers, after having been contract-less since 2011, struck a deal with the city on Feb. 6 that James “Jimmy” Kottage, president of the local firefighters’ union, called “pathetic.” As his union, Local 825 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, prepares to enter arbitration with the city on March 21, WEEKEND chatted with Kottage about his background, the state of union organizing in New Haven and his beef with the Feb. 6 police contract.
Q. You currently serve as president of Local 825. How long have you held that position and what did you do before you assumed that role?
A. I’ve lived in or around New Haven for approximately 35-40 years. My family was brought up in the city. I was a firefighter for 18 years before becoming president of the union. Very early on, I got involved in the police and fire pension fund. A few years later, I became secretary treasurer for the union, which is basically the number-two guy in the union. I held that position for about eight to 10 years. Then when Patrick Egan became the assistant chief on the management side, I moved up to being president in 2010. I’ve been elected for two more terms since.
Q. So Patrick Egan was the Local 825 president for 10 years before being appointed by the Board of Fire Commissioners to an open assistant chief position. Do you see yourself making a similar sort of shift at some point? Would you ever consider going from union to management-side?
A. If I were offered a position like that, I would not take it. I wouldn’t even think about it. It takes a really unique sort of personality to go from the labor side to the management side and still think you can treat your members fairly. It just causes way too many problems. What Patrick did was selfish. It was a selfish move that’s good for the individual and his family but, as for the membership that he represented, it’s not a good move, and it’s really disheartening.
Q. Can you describe what it’s been like to work with Egan on opposing sides?
A. It’s been a nightmare. When it comes to discipline and day-to-day operations, it’s been a complete nightmare. He’s been very difficult throughout contract negotiations and even basic policy stuff. There’s only one way to do business with Patrick Egan — and it’s Patrick Egan’s way. There are so many issues that we have made no progress on resolving because Pat is not willing to meet us halfway. From discipline to promotions to operational policies, he hasn’t been willing to compromise at all. He blocks every avenue I’ve tried to go down.
Q. On the topic of union leadership, can you speak at all to the racial composition of the executive board? Given the large number of black and Hispanic firefighters, why do you think there has never been a non-white union president in New Haven?
A. The members of the union are elected by a body of firefighters that consists of whites, blacks, Hispanics, what have you. The union leadership should obviously be able to represent everybody. As to the racial makeup, there is some diversity on our executive board and we certainly have a diverse group of union members. I was challenged in December 2012 for president by Darrell Brooks, who is black. I don’t think that race played any role in the election. I ended up winning, and I will stand by my record that I represent everybody, independent of race. To my recollection, I don’t believe there has ever been a black president of Local 825.
Q. You’ve been in the news recently for coming out in opposition to the police contract the NHPD struck in February. What is the nature of your opposition to the contract?
A. I believe that the city was able to accomplish a divide and conquer tactic in making this deal with the policemen. They gave better benefits to senior guys who would vote yes for the contracts and they eviscerated benefits for guys in the middle of the pack and for the new guys coming on. They’re all split up now. The city got exactly what it wanted and is now saving all this money on the backs of its employees. The danger of this contract goes beyond the city, though. The contract was bad for public safety throughout the state, because it will be used as a model in other negotiations. It’s a terrible contract for public safety because when other organizations end up in arbitration, this contract can be used against them as a comparable.
Q. The NHPD contract is a five-year agreement between the city and the 413 unionized officers who have been working without a contract since 2011. It includes a number of planned wage increases but also drastic changes to pension and health benefits. Can you describe some of these changes? What exactly about the contract do you find troubling?
A. What the city has been allowed to do is put in all these different tiers for different policemen. They’ve divided up guys who have a lot of time on the job versus guys that have about 20 years versus guys that have less than 15. They completely divided the membership. And they’re eviscerating benefits that they’ve collectively bargained for over the last 50 years. They’re destroying some of the health and pension benefits that are absolutely critical to their own wellbeing. A new cop coming into New Haven might be better off with a 401(k) and collecting social security than signing onto the fire benefit plan.
Q. The city filed a complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations on Feb. 5 accusing you of obstructing its settlement agreement with the police officers. Why was this action taken against you? What have you done to oppose the contract?
A. What I’ve done is voiced my First Amendment right to freedom of speech. I said a year ago, before the contract was done, that it would be a horrible agreement. I stand by that today. It’s a horrible, pathetic contract. I tried to get the cops to vote it down and tried to share these concerns with the police union president. I don’t believe the cops have been educated on exactly what they’re losing. On one of the healthcare plans, they’re going from a 12 percent cost-share that would cost about $2,800 per year and it’s rising to a 30 percent cost-share that will cost $7,900 per year. For a newly hired police officer, this is devastating. When he retires, his children will have no medical benefits. For somebody that’s putting his life on the line every day he comes to work, to take away his children’s benefits is just horrible.
Q. And what about your own contract negotiations?
A. The firefighters have not had a contract for 20 months. We’re now going into binding arbitration. That’s not by my choice. Our first meeting is March 21, and it will be about the ‘ability to pay’ argument from the city. The city is saying they can’t pay for firefighters and their benefits and that’s why they need these concessions, or cuts to our benefits. Our old contract formally expired on June 30, 2011. There has been a huge delay on the city’s part since then because they hired a new labor director who ended up resigning. We’ve only had one meeting so far with the city’s new attorney, Marjan Mashhabi.
Q. How’s it looking? What are the prospects of a mutually beneficial settlement?
A. The mayor gave me a number for millions of dollars in concessions, and I have come back with still some of those concessions and he has said what I offered is off the table. We know there have to be concessions. We know that. We know that the benefits we receive today from our prior contract need to be adjusted due to the city’s financial situation. I just hope we can find common ground. The union is more than willing to work with the city to make some concessions and to adjust certain parts of the contract. But it appears we’re heading to arbitration and will have a third party decide where the concessions and cuts will come from. That’s what state statute says. We’ll see who will be on the list of arbitrators.
Q. You — and Local 825 as a whole — endorsed Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in his 2011 election campaign. Why is that? Would you endorse him again today?
A. I still totally support the decision to endorse the mayor in the last election. He was the best candidate running for the city. I would hope that the mayor would still like to keep a good relationship with the fire fighters and to work with us in getting a contract. But that’s his choice.
Q. And what about the 2013 mayoral race? Do you have a preference among the emerging candidates?
A. We’re not ready to make an endorsement. We’re wide open. We’ll be listening to and speaking with all of the candidates. No matter what happens, we’ll be involved with the mayoral as well as the aldermanic races.
Q. Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, who is heavily backed by labor forces in the city, said he might run. Would you support him?
A. It’s too early to tell. I’ve always supported Perez in the past, and he has always been a good supporter of the firefighters. Whether he’s going to run? That’s his choice.
The group, dubbed the “New Haven 10,” argued their case at the New Haven Superior Court on Monday, contending that the results of a 2011 promotional test should be voided because they override the results of a 2009 exam that the city unlawfully let expire after only one year, thereby denying the officers their rightful promotions. But the “status conference” — as it was dubbed by its participants — succeeded merely in scheduling a future hearing to decide on the injunction.
The real action, however, came in the hallway outside of the courtroom when the city’s lawyers attempted to strike a deal with John Williams, the New Haven attorney representing the plaintiffs, to prevent the injunction from moving forward. New Haven Corporation counsel Victor Bolden and New Haven attorney Nicole Chomiak approached Williams and suggested they ask the Civil Service Board to certify the 2011 examination to see how Williams’ clients scored, Williams recalled.
“They suggested to me that we wait for the results,” Williams told the News. “And I said I would agree to that only if they agreed not to take any action on the results until we had an opportunity to come back to court.”
But Williams said Bolden and Chomiak refused his counteroffer, saying they were unwilling to commit to an injunction against hiring based on the results of the test. Bolden said in a Tuesdayemail that such a move “certainly does not serve the public safety interests of New Haven’s residents well.”
“If the results are certified, there is no reason to leave justly earned promotions on hold, while litigation proceeds for several months, perhaps years,” Bolden wrote.
New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman underscored the NHPD’s impartiality in the case but noted the urgency of sergeant promotions. The city is currently 18 sergeants short, forcing the NHPD to fill shifts by hiring overtime, Hartman said, adding that this is “costing the city a lot of money.”
Williams, however, remained staunch in his objection to the 2011 examination, saying it was skewed and would therefore be unfair to use for promotions. He added that it was “totally subjective” and easily manipulated since it gave greater weight to the oral portion of the exam than did the 2009 version.
If an injunction is not granted and the city goes ahead with the promotions, the 18 open sergeant positions are unlikely to go entirely to the plaintiffs, which aside from the “New Haven 10” also include eight officers suing over the examination in federal court. Once the positions are filled, the plaintiffs would only be able to pursue monetary damages, which Williams said would be difficult to calculate.
“That’s one of the problems because it presumably would be very substantial. It’s a little hard to calculate,” Williams said, noting that any monetary damages would have to take into account lost promotional opportunities, higher salaries and pensions.
Regardless of the outcome of the injunction, the result of the case for five of the plaintiffs may be moot. According to Bolden, those five scored too low on the 2009 exam to be promoted and therefore “lack standing to sue the City, much less seek any relief from it.”
The next hearing on the injunction is set for 9:15 a.m. on Dec. 5, six days before the next meeting of the Civil Service Board — which is scheduled to certify the results of the 2011 exam at that time.