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Rift grows wider

August 24, 2018

STAMFORD — Between elected and police officials, the frustration was evident.

Half an hour into a rambling discussion about a yearlong effort to beef up the city’s park police unit, Rep. Rodney Pratt, D-9, said Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski and Assistant Chief Tom Wuennemann had not answered his question about hiring a third officer.

“So … nothing has been done?” Pratt asked during a meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Parks and Recreation Committee.

“We are pushing regular officers to try and spend more time in the parks,” Wuennemann said. “But as far as hiring another park police officer, no, nothing’s been done.”

“It’s out of our control,” Jankowski said. “It’s in union negotiations.”

“So the police department is actually pro-park police then?” Pratt asked.

“Who was ever against park police?” Jankowski replied.

The next hour and a half revealed a rift between representatives, police, and Mayor David Martin, who did not attend Tuesday night’s meeting. It is rooted in the lead-up to last year’s municipal election, when residents demanded better security in the parks, citing problems that include drunkenness, drug use, fighting, sexual activity, loud music, public urination, vandalism, illegal dumping, and homeless encampments.

In response, representatives pushed for more park police, but during budget negotiations in the spring, Martin cut one of the three officer positions and asked for $300,000 to start a park ambassador program instead. Representatives did not give him the money.

Rep. Dennis Mahoney, R-20, wanted to know about $260,000 the parks supervisor put in his budget to hire three more permanent park officers, who work part time, and five to work only in the summer.

“Somewhere down the line ... that disappeared and … became ambassadors,” Mahoney said. “Somewhere in the city someone is against having additional park police or, at least, believes that another program is more important than park police. The board has been clear it is in favor of park police. The only thing stopping us is that somewhere in the administration or the police department, I don’t know where, there is this opposition to park police.”

After representatives cut the $300,000 for Martin’s ambassador program, they put the money in the contingency fund, hoping he would change his mind about park police.

It can’t happen until union talks are resolved, Jankowski and Wuennemann said. That’s because in June the Police Commission refused to reappoint the two remaining park police officers until they come under the supervision of the police department. Park officers are armed and sworn police but report to the parks supervisor and belong to UAW Local 2377, not the union that represents regular police.

Mahoney said there’s a feeling on the board that union negotiations are not the obstacle.

“Every neighborhood coalition and association in the city is in favor of park police, but we still sit here with this almost stubbornness that you don’t want to try to…figure out a way to get more park police. So I think you’ve lost a lot of good faith in this effort,” he said. “I don’t understand how the city finds itself completely opposed by the public on this issue and continues to dig itself into a hole. I’m convinced that the goal of the city is that the park police fade away.”

Jankowski and Wuennemann did not respond to his comment directly.

“We are looking at other initiatives and viable options to make sure that we respond to what the public concerns are,” Jankowski said, questioning how board members can ask for park police after cutting the funding.

“To say we didn’t want to provide the money is factually inaccurate,” Mahoney said. “We wanted to give it to (the parks department) under the structure we had.”

“And we put it in contingency,” said Rep. Marion McGarry, D-12.

“A lot of that money is already gone,” Jankowski said.

Wuennemann explained the difficulty of hiring park police, who must meet all the training requirements of regular officers but work only part-time. The jobs are most likely filled by recently retired officers, Wuennemann said, but the department has seen little interest among those planning retirement.

Representatives said that’s because the city wants to hire only seasonal officers, not permanent part-timers, making the job far less attractive. They also said they fear the police department will fold park officers into the patrol division and not dedicate them to parks.

“There’s a total lack of trust. I get that,” Wuennemann said, which is why he asked that the park unit be given its own separate line in the department’s budget.

Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, addressed the distrust.

“There is some sense of animosity from either the administration or the Stamford Police Department … that’s how it comes across,” Sherwood said. “The people of this board and the people of this city have been very clear that they want park police...but you have not given me any comfort that…you would bolster the number…or use them in the parks.”

Jankowski wrote representatives a memo saying park police are an important part of the Stamford Police Department. But, representatives pointed out, the memo also says that “other policing options or additional hires will be considered in the future if the budget supports, current issues are resolved, and viable candidates are available to be hired.”

Rep. David Watkins, R-1, said he thinks police officials have dismissed residents’ concerns. He referenced Jankowski’s comment to the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month that police reports don’t indicate many problems.

“There’s a lot of hysteria going on that our parks aren’t safe,” Jankowski told the commissioners.

“You said it troubles you that we don’t have confidence in your professionalism,” Watkins said. “It troubles me that our citizens don’t have the same view of the problem as you.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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