On Tuesday night, the RTM considered a sense of the meeting resolution about returning Greenwich Police to direct traffic at intersections along Greenwich Avenue.
A group of 20 petitioners had requested the item be added to the agenda, noting that in January 2019, prior to the pandemic, First Selectman Camillo removed funding from his 2021-2022 budget for police to continue directing traffic on Greenwich Ave. They said the BET then took the rare step of adding the money back, a move ratified by the RTM at their May 2020 meeting. Nevertheless, the police were kept off duty, the petitioners noted.
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Police Chief Heavey released a statement explaining the rationale for removing police directing traffic on the Avenue. He also met in person with several committees.
Heavey said there were no fewer officers on Greenwich Ave today than when police were assigned to traffic posts. Instead, he officers are deployed differently. For example, the Organized Retail Criminal Activity (ORCA) team addresses theft and financial crime on the Avenue. There are both bicycle and plain clothes officers present on the Avenue as well.
He said years ago the officer directing traffic at Lewis Street was removed, with no adverse consequences.
A number of people testified on both sides.
Richard Neuman, chair of the RTM Town Services Committee, said his committee had met with Chief Heavey and asked about possible alternatives to using police to direct traffic.
“We were told that state statutes require that only certified police officers be allowed to direct traffic at the intersections,” Neuman said. “This is also in the union contract.”
Ed Dadakis of district 1 said he was proud of his district’s encouragement of the resolution. He said police directing traffic was “a century old tradition.”
“Chief Heavey is a strong and effective advocate for this change. But it is important to note that Mr. Heavey didn’t initiate it. Instead, it was originally proposed by our elected politicians,” Dadakis said. “We all know there are times when Greenwich Ave is chaotic. Drivers stopping completely or driving down the middle of the road at 2 mph, pedestrians crossing wherever they want, frequently paying no attention to their surroundings. Chaos is reduced and managed with police at the intersections.”
He said while police riding around on bikes was “nice,” it was the reliable presence of an officer at the intersections that kept order, and kept pedestrians and the handicapped safe, in addition to discouraging store thefts and robbery of shoppers, and aided motorists crossing a busy Avenue, which is often flooded with pedestrians.
Bill Lewis who was also one of the petitioners, said the SOMR stemmed from discussion in district 1 on the unexpected removal of police from Greenwich Ave after 94 years. He said the First Selectman’s decision to remove funding from the budget for police on the Ave had come as a surprise.
“Just a few weeks after he was sworn into office, First Selectman Camillo decided to remove them and ‘redeploy’ them to bicycle and foot patrols,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that both the BET and RTM overrode the decision and readjusted the budget to return the funding.
Still, he said, police were not returned to directing traffic.
“In store crime has apparently been identified as a higher priority than pedestrians safety,” Lewis continued, adding that since they being ‘redeployed,’ there was no financial savings in removing the officers.
Lewis said Alan Gunzburg, the chair of the First Selectman’s committee for People with Disabilities, had signed a petition along with over 1,100 people calling for restoration of police to the intersections.
First Selectman Fred Camillo complained about what he viewed as an effort to “micro managing the police department.”
Camillo said the position of Alan Gunzburg, the chair of the First Selectman’s committee for People with Disabilities, had been misrepresented.
“Alan Gunzburg is totally supportive of this now,” Camillo said. “The reason Alan had a change of heart is because we spoke to him, listened to him and walked the Avenue with him.”
Further, Camillo said over the years Greenwich police chiefs had said cops directing traffic was a tremendous waste of manpower, and that the town undergoes great expense to train its officers.
Camillo said, “(Police directing traffic) cannot even respond to a crime. They have to call it in on their cell phones.”
“There has never been more police officers on Greenwich Ave than there is now,” he continued.
“The previous speaker telling the police department that he knows better because it was done in the past that way is the most ridiculous statement,” he added.
Former First Selectman Peter Tesei said he regretted having accepted former Chief David Ridberg’s removal of the police officer at Lewis Street.
“Redeployment was promised but never realized,” he said.
He said emergency services personnel provide security to everyone, but were especially valuable to the town’s elderly or infirm.
“Keeping them safe is the hallmark of what Greenwich does,” he said.
Carl Carlson from District 2 said he’d been acquainted with the Avenue for 62 years and walked it daily. He the best solution to the congestion would be to return police to intersection.
“In the last dozen or so years, there’s been a decrease in activity on Greenwich Ave, first due to president Bush’s depression and most recently to the Covid disaster,” he said. “But I think Greenwich Ave is going to come back as a shopping area.”
“I think for controlling the traffic, the building of the berm…is one of the worst mistakes that anybody has ever proposed for the town of Greenwich,” Carlson added.
Valerie Stauffer said she’d driven to the Avenue the previous Saturday and encountered a dangerous situation at Lewis Street where pedestrians and cars were all trying to get across the intersection at the same time.
“Pedestrians were crossing. Cars were determined to move through that intersection. Finally, I realized I had to just ‘go for it’ and hope that no other car was also just going to go for it,” she recalled, adding that after she parked she became a pedestrian running across the intersection to “beat the cars bearing down on me.”
She said while this happened, two bicycle police rode past her, but weren’t tasked with the intersections.
Stauffer said signal lights were an alternative, but would be expensive and slow the traffic significantly.
As for the intersection bumpouts, she argued that not only would 4 parking spots be lost, but the intersections would remain hazardous for pedestrians and cars.
Chief Heavey had the last word. He said he hated being labelled the opponent, especially after having grown up in Greenwich.
“I know it’s a very emotional issue,” he said, adding that the bump out at Elm Street is designed to be a traffic calming mechanism and is already underway. “I hope town bodies are able to create another traffic calming measure at Havemeyer.”
“The officers are not off the Avenue,” he continued. “And with the new deployment, we have more officers there, and for extended hours. When officers directed traffic they worked from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Currently we have officers on bikes from 7:00am to 6:00pm, and the ORCA team works in odd hours so they’re not seen.”
The SOMR will come back before the RTM again in March.
Jan 18, 2021