Thanksgiving weekend brings an opportunity for many throughout the region to spend time with friends and family, watch football, take part in holiday celebrations and enjoy time off from work. 

For local police, it means planning in advance and finding a way to keep shifts fully covered while supplementing officers to assure public safety at a wide range of events scheduled for this time of year. 

"In downtown Westerly, Wednesday is the busiest bar night of the entire year. It doesn't get much easier from there," Police Capt. Shawn Lacey said this week. "Planning for Thanksgiving weekend is a balance of filling needs and overtime shifts while still working in time off for officers to enjoy the holiday with their own families." 

Knowing what you need — and scheduling those needs in advance — is a big part of making sure the community's needs are covered all weekend long, both Lacey and Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson said Tuesday. 

When it comes to the holiday itself, there are many needs in both communities. Lacey said police step up enforcement every year, including adding extra patrols, on Wednesday night from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. Thursday. The department this year also had several officers assigned to the Thanksgiving Day rivalry football game between Westerly and Stonington. 

Across town lines in Connecticut, Olson said his agency also had an extra officer available at the high school as an added security measure related to an influx of traffic as a result of the game, as well as utilizing three reserve officers to provide full coverage of the YMCA's annual Turkey Trot and Dip in Mystic. 

And it doesn't end there.

Westerly and Stonington each have a busy weekend filled with public events including Santa's arrival, which requires officers downtown from both departments, tree lightings around the two towns Friday and Saturday, and other high-profile events. 

"Unfortunately, to meet this need and regular responsibilities means someone always needs to be working. Fortunately we have dedicated employees and are able to work around that challenge," Olson said. 

When it comes to the holiday itself, both Lacey and Olson said their agencies allow officers to shift schedules and work together in order to adjust. They also offer overtime shifts in accordance with union contracts and noted that these shifts rarely go unfilled. 

"These guys know in advance. If there's one working the night shift and their family eats at night, they will switch with someone who works day shift so both can celebrate," Lacey said. He noted families are also responsive and will often adjust schedules to accommodate the officers. 

Olson said that In Stonington, officers are also enticed to work thanks in part to a Thanksgiving dinner brought to the department by members of the United States Submarine Veterans Inc., of Groton Subbase. The organization, made up of retired veterans, began the meal program around 2000 and in recent years has been able to offer full meals consisting of turkey and all the fixings to police from Waterford to Norwich and Stonington. 

Jim Leonitis, a retired 24-year Navy veteran and member of the Thanksgiving committee, said it started as a way of providing holiday dinners for those left at the subbase in Groton. From there, it expanded to an all day program that now leads to 600-800 meals being served across the region to various military personnel and first responders. 

"Our goal, really, is just to give back to those are serving our communities," Leonitis said. 

Ultimately, Lacey and Olson said their agencies are able to make it work year to year based on a dedicated staff who is willing to step up to the challenge. 

"Our officers have always been understanding," Lacey said. "It takes a certain personality to be a police officer. These guys knew in advance that this is the career they signed up for."

jvallee@thewesterlysun.com