New Britain PD Adds Front-Line Supervisors

NEW BRITAIN — Compared to two years ago, the roster of police supervisors and commanders is almost unrecognizable: Exactly 90 percent of the people are new to their rank since mid-2012.

The chief and every captain and lieutenant are fresh to their jobs, and 17 of 20 sergeants were patrol officers or detectives two years ago.

"It's an agency that's been completely rebuilt," Chief James Wardwell said. "It's imperfect and we're not done, but it's difficult to do a complete 180. We're turning and changing, and thankfully we have a very good team of officers and supervisors."

In those same two years, the department has gone from struggling along with just 126 officers to 164, only eight below its full strength of 172. The short-handed detective division was restaffed quickly, and the front-line patrol division's dozens of vacancies have been gradually filled since.

The next phase will take place when the department creates four new sergeants' positions. The change won't affect overall staffing, but will reduce the patrol ranks by four. The department did away with two civilian positions to offset the extra salary expense.

Meanwhile, the budget of the financially beleaguered city stands to gain significantly, because the agency will be steeply reducing the massive number of supervisor's overtime shifts — known as "red days" — that were a byproduct of keeping staffing so low. Those expenses have run into the six-digit range in prior years.

Commanders have another reason to welcome more front-line supervisors: Roughly a third of the department's entire roster is new since 2012. A contract with lucrative retirement incentives sapped the already-depleted ranks two years ago, and the department has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy to bring in new people ever since.

New Britain is running its second training academy for recruit classes, a system that brings in many people at once after more than a year of lag time from when they're hired to when they're ready to fill patrol slots. Of New Britain's 164 officers, 10 are rookies currently in training who are scheduled to join the patrol force this winter.

Also, the city has been hiring experienced officers from other agencies. That approach is more laborious, since many applicants wash out in the screening process for every one that's chosen; Wardwell and his command staff took just 23 of the 160 applicants who appeared in the last 18 months.

The advantage of hiring that way is that the city gets experienced, certified officers who can be on the street in a month or so following specialized training about New Britain ordinances, the city's geography and crime patterns, and the department's policies.

For years, New Britain kept its supervisory levels low, partly to maximize the number of officers in the detective and patrol officer ranks.

"Extra supervision is something we really wanted for a long time but the lack of personnel held us back," said Capt. Thomas Steck, chief of the detective division.

The agency deploys street sergeants to oversee officers on the day, evening and overnight shifts, but hasn't had enough to assign to officers who work the two extra shifts when call volume is highest:, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"It's a span of control issue. All the management books suggest one sergeant for about four to seven officers. When we've had one sergeant trying to deal with 15 officers, it becomes exponentially more difficult," Wardwell said. "We're not talking about micromanaging – we're talking about guidance, coaching, teaching and supervision."

Wardwell took command of the department when it was in severe turmoil following a series of scandals and internal lawsuits. He revamped the command staff, and is widely credited with rebuilding low morale.

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