A year ago, city leaders touted the success of the Hartford shooting task force, pointing to statistics showing that gun-related homicides had dropped by more than 40 percent and that first-degree assaults with firearms had decreased by nearly 30 percent from a year earlier.
Mayor Pedro Segarra said that he would keep the unit operating indefinitely, and law enforcement authorities stressed the importance of consistency in targeting violent crime.
But a year later, the task force has shrunk to about half its peak size, from 40 or 50 members to less than 20, Police Chief James Rovella said.
The number of shooting victims has increased 9 percent from this time last year. Rovella indicated that the increase was due, at least in part, to budget cuts that affected police staffing.
The city has been grappling with financial problems brought on by property revaluation and a decline in market values, as well as the rising cost of benefits and pension contributions and a decrease in state aid. Segarra and the city council worked this past spring to close a $70 million budget deficit.
In the process, police overtime was cut back, from $3.5 million in 2012-13, to $2.8 million in 2013-14, although the department's overall budget rose from $36.6 million to $38.5 million. Public safety was one of the few areas to receive an increase while most other city departments were hit with millions of dollars in cuts.
Council members in April said that the city needed to get overtime costs under control, and approved a proposal freezing all overtime pay and hiring that exceeds the budget unless approved by the council. Segarra vetoed the plan because of its potential effect on public safety.
"I shudder to think about a scenario where we are unable to dispatch critical police personnel to the site of a violent crime or allow our first-responders to respond to a horrific motor vehicle accident or serious fire," Segarra said in April. "Setting aside council's intentions and potential infringements on the executive duties of the mayor, this action also flies in the face of the powers accorded to the chiefs of police and fire."
But the city council overturned his veto with a supermajority vote.
Council members called a special meeting at city hall Monday to get updates on crime-fighting initiatives by the police department.
Rovella said at the meeting that he had to cut costs to come in under budget at the end of June -- the close of the 2012-13 fiscal year -- including shifting officers off beats and onto patrol.
"We did have to convert several of our beats to cars to avert the overtime," he said, "and we had to make several adjustments, including the reduction in staffing levels at the shooting task force."
Council President Shawn Wooden pointed out, however, that the police department has already used more money for overtime this summer than it did last summer. He also noted that police could have requested additional funding for overtime, but did not.
"If [Rovella] needed more in overtime and he and the mayor didn't come to the council and ask for it, that's a political choice that they made," Wooden said Tuesday. "There was never a request for additional overtime."
"The city is struggling financially. We have to manage a budget that includes the police department."
Monday's meeting was attended by many residents who supported the police. The Rev. Henry Brown, whose group, Mothers United Against Violence, holds vigils for victims of gun violence in Hartford, said that the shooting task force needs more resources.
"Ever since they've cut back that task force, shootings have increased in Hartford," he said. "The task force has made a tremendous difference."
"I think if we are concerned about the shootings, there should be more money given to combat the elements of crime. In spite of what everyone is saying about [overall] crime being down, Hartford doesn't feel safe."
Rovella could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday. Segarra and Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane did not return calls seeking comment.
Rovella said Monday that the increase in overtime this summer stems from a decrease in staffing, from 480 officers to 462. As many as 67 more police officers could leave the department over the next 12 to 14 months, many because of retirement, he said.
A class of 30 new police recruits is expected to join the department in April. The council also has approved the hiring of 10 additional officers, Wooden said.
Rovella cautioned, however, that it takes time to train new officers. Many of those who are expected to leave the force have decades of experience, he said.
Councilman David MacDonald said Tuesday that although public safety is a priority, the city doesn't have the money to pay for overtime as it has in the past.
"The priority for the council is to make sure we have a good and balanced budget, and that we don't have to keep using the city's fund balance to balance our budget," he said.
MacDonald said city officials might want to pursue additional funding from the state to help supplement the shooting task force and other public safety efforts.
A major cause of police overtime is special events. Police receive overtime pay for directing traffic, handling road closures and controlling crowds at parades, carnivals, races and other activities in the city.
Under the current system, special event organizers are charged flat fees to cover the cost of police, permits and other city services. For example, a parade that occupies up to two major streets, or half a mile, costs $10,000, while a parade taking up five major streets, or 1 1/2 miles, costs $20,000.
But Rovella said that the fees go to the city, not directly to the police department, and he's using money from his budget to pay for overtime for special events instead of fighting crime.
Council members said they hope to find better solutions to the special events issue. A task force has been created to study the city's requirements for parades and other events, including how many officers are needed.
"This is something we could change through an ordinance," MacDonald said. "It shouldn't be [the police department's] concern -- dealing with entertainment costs. It shouldn't be coming out of their budget like that."
"The groups putting on those events should figure out how to contribute more money," he said. "The city is poor. We can't afford to be doing these things all the time."
After the task force has studied the requirements, it is expected to make recommendations for improvement.
As the police department grapples with fiscal restraints, it also is preparing to implement a new initiative -- Project Longevity -- that would target the city's most violent offenders.
The program will expand on the efforts of the shooting task force, which has focused on the most serious criminals.
Under the initiative, researchers study gangs, their makeup and relationships, focusing on the relatively small number of people who commit the most violent crimes. Later, gang members are called into a room with family members, community leaders, social service workers, police and prosecutors and told that if any of them shoots someone, law enforcement will come down on the entire group.
Many gang members are on parole or probation, and the warning is designed to let them know that they will be targeted -- and could go to prison -- even if another person does the shooting.
As an alternative, they are offered programs and services -- drug treatment, employment preparation and readiness, housing, education and life skills.
The project is expected to be covered by federal, state and local money. The city is seeking $60,000 from the state to fund the position of project manager. City resident Tiana Hercules has been selected to fill the role, coordinating the effort in Hartford.
Some residents say that the funding, if approved, comes at a good time.
Hyacinth Yennie, who lives in the South End, said she hopes that the project builds on the efforts already in place.
"We need a long-term solution that can help," Yennie said. "We have all these temporary things that come and go, and when they work, we dismantle them and start all over from zero again. We have to look at what we're doing and make it better."
Police have also noted the importance of consistency.
Shooting task force members pointed out that a similar effort -- another task force formed to target gun violence in 2008 -- was effective until the effort was disbanded.
The most recent task force has been in place since the summer of 2011.
"When things are getting better, they say we don't need to send more money," Yennie said, referring to state and federal agencies. "Hartford is such a delicate place. The criminals know when things are up and when things are down. That's not good for us. Hartford needs to be a stable place."
> About 50: Members in Hartford shooting task force in 2012.
> Less than 20: Members in 2013.
> 9 percent: Increase in shooting victims over past year.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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