New Haven’s growing budget gap led to the layoffs of 16 New Haven Police Department officers Wednesday night. In response, nearly 250 officers — over half the entire police force — took to the streets in protest Thursday.

The protest, which lasted over three hours, began at the NHPD headquarters on Union Ave and ended at the foot of City Hall. It represented the culmination of weeks of budget tensions that began with Mayor John DeStefano’s call to reevaluate the city’s pension plan and ended in the dismissal of 16 officers. Following the march, union leadership squared off against the mayor in a closed-door meeting in his office for over an hour in a last-ditch effort to save the jobs. But the two sides could not resolve their differences, and the protest ultimately failed to prevent the layoffs — the 16 officers handed in their guns and badges later that afternoon.

“This is one of the hardest days of my career,” NHPD Chief Frank Limon said. “The [laid-off] officers are not happy and they don’t like the way they’ve been treated … They weren’t treated with a lot of respect.”

He criticized the way the city handled the layoffs, and said that he would like to keep every officer.

The march started at 9:30 a.m. and ended at City Hall, where DeStefano stood by his decision to lay off the officers.

After nearly a week of speculation about whether cuts would be announced, the 16 newest hires in the NHPD were called at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday night and notified that their position had been terminated, said Lou DeCrescenzo, one of the officers who lost his job.

The union met to discuss their dissatisfaction and planned a response later that night. The next morning around 9:30 a.m, a crowd of off-duty officers began to form around the NHPD building, police union treasurer Sgt. Anthony Zona said.

Instead of handing in their badges at 10 a.m., the 16 officers and other rank and file members questioned Limon and New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01, NHPD spokesman Joseph Avery said.

But when this conversation did not satisfy the crowd, the 16 officers and union leaders led a procession of nearly 250 down the street to City Hall, where they protested until 1 p.m., Zona said.

“When we were at the police department and didn’t get the answers from Smuts, we decided to come here,” Zona said. “We came here to get some answers from the mayor.”

As the police congregated on the steps of City Hall, DeStefano invited the union executive board and its attorney Richard Gudis into an impromptu meeting, Zona said.

At the meeting, Union President Sgt. Lou Cavaliere said he proposed a plan to save the 16 jobs which included allowing the officers to work for two months while the union and the city came to a resolution. He added that the union was anticipating between 30 and 50 retirements in the coming year and was also open to temporarily working unpaid, both of which could help the city’s budget problem.

But after considering the offer for 30 minutes, DeStefano declined and demanded that the officers hand in their badges that day,

Cavaliere said that the mayor’s refusal will be bad for the NHPD and bad for the city.

“When calls for help come in, it will be a serious problem for the residents who are all paying such high taxes,” Cavaliere said. He explained that the police force is already understaffed. He has even told officers to always wait for backup if there is a dangerous call, a move that will significantly increase the police response time to calls for help.

City Hall was quick to respond. In a 3 p.m. press conference at City Hall, DeStefano was quick to refute that undermanning the police force would make it more dangerous for the officers and residents.

“Union leadership doesn’t have a sense of reality yet,” DeStefano said .

The mayor pointed to the historical NHPD staffing level as evidence that the NHPD will be able to function without the 16 officers. Although the firings will decrease the work force from 450 to 434, DeStefano said the average number of officers has not exceeded 435 in the past decade.

DeStefano added that Thursday’s workforce reductions are merely returning the department to its normal levels. But Cavaliere told the News after the press conference that New Haven has become more dangerous than ever and that the mayor’s 2010 plan to raise the department to 490 badges shows that the mayor does not believe this change is justified.

“How could you be so cruel?” Cavaliere said, adding that there were five shootings in the past day, and one even took place while the union was meeting with DeStefano.

The mayor said in his press conference that there had not traditionally been a strong correlation between the size of the police force and the crime levels, and he said that any attempt to say New Haven will become less safe is “inaccurate and irresponsible.”

At the mayor’s press conference, Limon expressed discontent with the city’s handling of layoffs. Limon said he had been fighting for the officers but ultimately had to give into the mayor’s plan to combat the city’s budget gap. But, he said, he has now “drawn the line” for the mayor and will not accept any more workforce reductions.

But he added that he had been contacted by other Connecticut police departments such as West Haven and Norwalk, and was aware of at least 25 job openings for those officers.

Several union officers said they wished the chief had taken a stronger stance for his department.

“Limon didn’t do anything,” Cavaliere said.

The lowest police staffing level in the past decade was in 2008-2009 when the department had 400 officers. That year, the city saw 23 murders.