In an election year, closing in on the deadline to apply for the latest police recruitment class, Mayor Bill Finch was flanked by members of the city’s clergy including Anthony Bennett, Bernadette Maynard-Hickman and Charlie Stallworth (see video), promoting diversity that reflects the makeup of the city. In doing so Finch is reaching out to African American and Latino voters, a constituency that has nostalgia for former Mayor Joe Ganim whose official entry into the race for the city’s top job could be weeks away.
When Ganim was elected mayor in 1991 violent crime was the largest issue in the city, larger than the federal bankruptcy filing of the mayor he defeated, Republican Mary Moran. The city was experiencing historic violent crime, innercity neighborhoods were war zones, averaging one murder per week over a series of years while operating with a severely undermanned department.
Roughly 100 new officers were hired in Ganim’s first term under a Police Department led by Thomas Sweeney who implemented a community policing program that provided much needed security leading to deep reductions in crime during the 1990s.
Finch is touting the lowest violent crime rate in 50 years. This police recruitment is also an effort to rebuild the lowest staffing levels in decades that have dipped below 400.
The city is challenged to compete with the pay scale and benefits offered by surrounding communities. Veteran members of the department have left-–many cashing in retirement pay–-for higher-paying communities and private-sector security positions. Some within the department also say morale issues have forged departures. In recent years collective bargaining agreements have required city police officers to contribute growing shares to medical benefits. Some area communities are offering lateral movement hires, meaning city officers can segue right into the respective systems because they are certified in law enforcement. The towns save money on training of recruits.
Finch administration critics such as retired city firefighters Ron Mackey and Donald Day, both past presidents of the Firebird Society that fought for racial balance in the Fire Department, assert the city has lost its way hiring police and firefighters that reflect the makeup of the city that could be 75 percent black and brown. Finch argues Bridgeport’s public safety is the most diverse among Connecticut cities, but adds it’s still not diverse enough. The Mayor touts an aggressive recruitment campaign to strengthen minority hires such as:
Collaborating with the Guardians and Hispanic Officers Society to better inform minority populations about career opportunities; holding recruitment drives across the city including churches, parades and college job fairs; providing incentives for city residents with an additional 15 percent on their Civil Service exam.
Ganim will challenge Finch’s veracity on the recruitment issue wondering why it’s taken more than seven years to bring hiring in line with the makeup of the city. Also, do the lower crime statistics reflect how residents feel about public safety?
Public safety will be key in the mayoral race with many police officers telling OIB they will support Ganim over Finch for a variety of reasons, including morale issues and lack of progress in a new labor pact.