MYSTIC — Until just six months ago, there was no reliable way for officers with the Stonington Police Department to talk to one another using police radio.
Officers would be forced to talk by phone, use email or communicate through each department's dispatch center, which often involved relaying information through multiple indivduals, Stonington Police Chief J. Darren Stewart said. That was why Stonington jumped on board when the state opened up use of its emergency radio system to municipalities at the start of the year — and Town of Groton Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., said that was also why his agency immediately followed suit.
Regular communication and constant collaboration have become critical components in the ever-changing roles of police officers, especially in a region that sees more tourists than any other community in the state of Connecticut, the two chiefs said Wednesday during the first-ever Coffee with the Chiefs at Bank Square Books.
"There are roughly 2.5 million visitors who come to Mystic every year, and it creates a strong need to work together across department lines," Stewart told an audience of approximately 20 participants.
The event, hosted at the store in partnership with the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, gave area residents insight into how the two-town community works and the vast efforts that police from both departments go through to make sure residents remain safe and any crime is addressed on both sides of the Mystic River.
Peggy Roberts, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes the program will become part of a periodic effort to make the community's top cops more accessible to the public. She said she was approached by the chiefs and immediately agreed to help in planning.
The purpose of the program, which branches off the concept of Coffee with a Cop and Ice Cream with a Cop events held earlier this year in both Stonington and Groton, is to let people interact and express their concerns or ask questions face-to-face.
With a much larger than anticipated crowd for the first-ever event, Stewart and Fusaro hosted an informal round table discussion and used the opportunity to describe the communication between agencies. The chiefs said the two departments constantly take part in shared regional training, partner in area task forces, issue weekly or sometimes daily bulletins between agencies, hold regular meetings between detectives and even maintain constant email threads between the chiefs and other department command staff.
The goal, both Stewart and Fusaro said, is to foster a partenrship between the two agencies in order to provide the highest quality service possible for the residents and visitors on both sides of the river.
Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, one of those in attendance, praised the work of the two agencies. He said he still recalls his time years ago as a member of the Stonington Board of Police Commissioners when the agency had a problem near the Westerly-Pawcatuck line. He recalled how those who committed a crime would cross the state line in order to avoid arrest.
With just a little collaboration, Simmons said, Westerly and Stonington were able to bring swift end to the issue. Simmons and the two chiefs all said that's exactly the type of relationship that the community needs, and what they hope to continue to maintain moving forward.
"There are common practices and regular training programs that cross town and even state lines," Fusaro said. "At one time, these agencies would need to work to show they made the arrest. That's not the case anymore. These days, collaboration is as important as anything else."
Roberts and participant Lindsey Harlan, a 26-year Groton resident and Bank Square Books customer who was able to ask about an issue involving a business neighboring her home, said they found the event both informative and progressive, saying they would certainly be interested in seeing more events like this moving forward.
Stewart said last week that he is working with Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva to host a similar program in the downtown Westerly/Pawcatuck area in the coming months, an effort that Roberts said the chamber would fully support.
"It was a great opportunity to talk directly with our leaders about the issues that matter to us," Harlan said.