Trumbull police struggle to hire, keep officers

Exterior, Trumbull Police Headquarters, in Trumbull, Conn. Jan. 14, 2016.

Exterior, Trumbull Police Headquarters, in Trumbull, Conn. Jan. 14, 2016.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

TRUMBULL — Police Chief Michael Lombardo remembers when people were lining up for jobs with the police department.

In 2017, he said, the department advertised for openings and got about 190 applications. He compared that to earlier this year, when the department got 39 applicants.

“Recruitment nationwide has been very difficult last few years,” Lombardo said. “There’s been a lot of scrutiny on law enforcement and how we do our duties.”

He said, though he’s always open to improving the department and the way officers serve the community, the fact remains that the town’s police department has a staffing shortage. The department is budgeted for 82 officers and has 75. However, that number includes four officers sworn in in January, who are still training and likely won’t be able to patrol the streets until December.

In the meantime, there’s a total of 11 spots with no officers — all of them on the patrol division.

“That’s the backbone of the department,” Lombardo said.

To help fill in the gaps, two school resource officers and one traffic officer have been moved over to patrol. But the shortage still means that some officers have to occasionally work an extra shift, Lombardo said, meaning they have to work 16 hours straight.

“The more we order people (to work extra hours), the more we run the risk of having people worn out,” he said.

Lombardo said, despite the staffing issues the department was “always meeting what’s required in the field,” but it would be easier with more manpower.

In addition to not getting enough applications, Lombardo said, there’s also been a problem with retention. That he lays largely at the feet of the department’s pension program.

Roughly eight years ago, the town changed the police pension plan from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. According to the United States Department of Labor, a defined benefit plan promises a specified monthly benefit at retirement. The promised benefit can be an exact dollar amount or it may calculate a benefit through a formula that considers such factors as salary and service.

A defined contribution plan does not promise a specific amount of benefits at retirement. In these plans, the employee or the employer, or both, contribute to the employee’s individual account under the plan.

Basically, Lombardo said, the current plan is seen as “not as secure for our officers and their families.”

Last year alone, he said, the department lost five officers who went to a department with a better pension plan. Lombardo said this has been happening for a few years, adding that, in 2018, Trumbull lost seven officers to other departments, citing the pension as the reason.

Trumbull public information officer Lt. Brian Weir echoed those statements.

“A lot people in their exit interviews said their issue was the pension, but they loved the department,” he said.

Lombardo said many of the towns surrounding Trumbull have a defined benefit plan, and he’d like to move back to that to remain competitive.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro said she’s aware of the department’s staffing shortage and, though it’s a concern “It’s certainly not just a Trumbull issue,” she said. “Most department across the country have had problems attracting police officers.”

As for the pension concerns, she said she’s aware of them and it’s something the town is trying to address.

“We’re doing our due diligence looking at all benefits packages to make sure that Trumbull continues to be an attractive place to work,” she said.

Like Lombardo, Tesoro said police are managing to fulfill their duties despite the ongoing staffing problem.

“Trumbull is a safe place to live and to work,” she said.