West Hartford Town Manager Matt Hart and Police Chief Vernon Riddick invite the community to participate in a conversation on July 22, from 6-8 p.m.
By Ronni Newton
Police accountability is one of four topics on the agenda for the state legislature, which is scheduled to convene this week, and as the Town of West Hartford is reviewing policies of its own police department, the town manager and police chief invite the community to engage in an interactive conversation.
The Facebook Live event, featuring Town Manager Matt Hart and Police Chief Vernon Riddick, will take place on Wednesday, July 22, from 6-8 p.m. Click here to join the conversation and ask questions.
The conversation will also be broadcast live on WHCi Comcast Channel 5/Frontier TV 6098.
The Town Council’s Public Safety Committee held a virtual meeting on July 8, and among the items discussed was an eight-step “Action Plan for Improving Community Engagement & Trust.” (See PDF below.)
Many of the items included in the plan are already being pursued – including increasing engagement through participation in forums such as Wednesday’s community conversation and a We-Ha.com round table discussion that included Chief Riddick and Mayor Shari Cantor.
Use of force policies are in the process of being updated, and a sample of a new report designed to increase transparency, including statistics on use of force and other key performance measures, is scheduled to be presented to the Public Safety Committee, which is chaired by Councilor Carol Blanks, on Aug. 5. The organization and composition of the department’s citizen complaints review board is also under review.
Several different types of body cameras are scheduled to be piloted in the next six to eight months, as noted in the plan.
West Hartford Police had participated in the 1033 program, which allows police to purchase excess military equipment, but participation has been suspended. According to the report to the Public Safety Committee on July 8, West Hartford Police currently has 21 types of items in its possession acquired through this program, “[i]ncluding, but not limited to medical bags, sleeping bags, rifles, weapon lights, and jaws of life,” but plan to return 19 rifles acquired through the program to the military.
The department will also be reviewing its human services responsibilities to determine if some of them – including wellness checks and landlord/tenant disputes – would be better handled by other departments, and will be identifying “action steps to expand community policing activities into the patrol division.”
Mayor Shari Cantor suggested a fourth column be added to the plan – an evaluation of the effectiveness of each step.
“We are moving in the right direction,” Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said. “We can say a lot of things .. its taking action and putting action steps into play that’s meaningful.” Review of the plan is the first step, he said.
“We didn’t just start this stuff now,” said Riddick. Many of the items discussed were part of the department’s “smart goals,” he said, including minority hiring. There are now seven Black officers in the department, four of whom were hired in the last year. Six new female officers have been hired in the past year.
“We’re not perfect but we are trying to get better,” Riddick said.
“I would think of this document as a working document,” Blanks said of the action plan. “I think it’s a good start.”
“Crime is still occurring and it’s important for us to know that,” said Riddick.
Although violent crimes are down in West Hartford, “We have a 7% increase in overall call for service,” Riddick said. Larcenies and burglaries are up 29%.
“For us that’s problematic,” Riddick said. “You add COVID, you add the national narrative, you add the pressures on our police officers that I can see on their faces daily … they still are stepping up to the plate and doing what they need to do.”
As an example of how department members showed up during COVID-19, Riddick said, during the period March 10-July 8, 2019, officers used 730 vacation days and 299 sick days. In 2020, “in the midst of the COVID environment and the pandemic our officers showed up,” using a total of just 540 vacation days, a 35.1% decrease, and 256 sick days for a decrease of 16.7% in the midst of a COVID pandemic.
“That’s what I call professionalism,” said Riddick, visibly and audibly choked up as he continued to speak. “That’s what I call public service. That’s what I call commitment in the face of adversity. We strive to do the right thing. When we screw up this management holds us accountable but doggone it we will put our lives on the line for you.”
Wednesday’s event will be the second interactive community conversation hosted this summer by Hart and Riddick. A recording of the first event, held at noon on July 1, can be viewed through the WHCi YouTube link below.
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