MERIDEN — Residents on Tuesday night continued to complain to city officials about planned cuts to the police department’s neighborhood initiative and school resource officer programs.
Several residents spoke against the changes during a public comment period at the City Council’s regular meeting, expressing concerns about the possible impact on the safety of neighborhoods and schools.
“In a day and age where school shootings seem to be occurring on (a regular basis), it’s important to have these SRO’s,” said Gina Manning, a Washington Middle School teacher and parent of two children in Meriden schools. “...Our children make up a large part of our city and deserve to be protected and feel safe at school.”
Other residents said they’re worried the elimination of the NI program will cause the city’s crime rate to rise. Police Chief Jeffry Cossette and others have credited the program for helping reduce crime in the city by 20 percent since it was established in 2005.
“You got to get them back,” resident Steve Cardillo said about neighborhood officers.
Cossette announced last week that $423,000 in cuts recently made to his budget by the City Council and the mayor will force him to eliminate the NI program and three SRO positions, including all officers assigned to middle schools and elementary schools. Those officers, Cossette said, will be moved back to patrol as a way to reduce the department's $1.5 million overtime account.
Meriden has had school resource officers since 1998. Manning said the officers diffuse problems before they occur and build relationships with students and families to prevent crime and other conflicts inside and outside of schools.
A former Washington Middle School student, now at Maloney High School, told the City Council Tuesday that he “always felt safe” at Washington Middle School with the school’s SRO, Officer Margaret Smusz, around.
Manning said Smusz also works with the Juvenile Diversion Board to “keep kids out of the court system and prevent the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects black students, so they can instead be given the educational help they need to be successful.”
The nine officers in the NI unit are assigned to neighborhoods and work with residents to address safety and quality of life issues.
“As a person who’s had several issues with quality of life, it’s been great to have a contact person,” resident Mary Ellen Mordarski said. “… There are issues that we have that don’t require us to call 911.”
“These guys are wonderful,” resident Jean Battah said about NI officers.
Cossette and City Councilors have blamed each for the cuts to NI and SRO positions. Councilors say they only cut Cossette’s budget and gave Cossette the choice of how to absorb the cut, while Cossette said he had no choice but to cut the positions and said it was “ridiculous” for councilors to think their approved cuts wouldn’t impact the NI unit or SROs.
The council cut the police budget in an effort to lower taxes following a referendum process.
One resident, Joe Vollano, pushed back against other residents’ complaints Tuesday.
“Getting up there and complaining about it and trying to (tell) sob stories and trying to scare the public that crime is going to go through the roof is ridiculous,” Vollano said. He suggested the Council of Neighborhoods consolidate the number of neighborhood associations from 31 to eight, which he said would make it easier for officers to attend monthly meetings.
“Our tax base is not growing, we don’t have the money,” Vollano said. “We have to deal with the money that we have and use it efficiently.”
The staffing changes will go in effect on Sept. 15, Cossette said. The NI and SRO positions cannot be reinstated until January at the earliest, Cossette said, because the police union contract only allows him to shift assignments three times a year in September, January and May.
Tuesday’s council meeting came a few days after a group of residents met with Cossette and other city councilors to express their disapproval of the cuts.