John Blankley (opinion): I once voted to keep cops on The Ave. Now I've changed my mind

A Greenwich Police officer directs traffic at Greenwich Avenue and Elm Street in Greenwich, Connecticut, in January 2020.

A Greenwich Police officer directs traffic at Greenwich Avenue and Elm Street in Greenwich, Connecticut, in January 2020.

File / Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Here we go again, a decades-old debate: the issue of traffic police on the Avenue is item 1 on the Representative Town Meeting’s agenda (“the call”) on March 8, pitting traditionalists against modernists.

When I first served on the RTM a dozen years ago one of the first votes I took was to keep “cops on the Avenue.” The proposal at that time was to install traffic lights, a soulless idea, so the choice then was easy and an overwhelming majority nixed it. And it was all the easier for me because when we’d arrived from the UK almost 25 years before we saw local police directing traffic and it was such a reminder of “Olde England.”

My thinking, even up until last year when I spoke on this subject at the BET, was that the image of police on the Avenue was a major component of our Greenwich brand and therefore had to be preserved. I did not argue (as some others did) that there was any big safety factor nor that there was any deterrent against crime; my sole point was the town’s image and reputation. “Cops on the Avenue” represented a quaint distinguishing feature that reminded people of old times and set Greenwich apart from any other town in New England. In short, I was a traditionalist!

In the end however the notion of a brand is nebulous and intangible. There was no great clamor to preserve the status quo, as evidenced by the lack of any mention of police on the Avenue in the Plan of Conservation and Development (the POCD) completed just more than a year ago with significant input from residents all over town. Plus, there are facts that cannot be denied and in the end facts, sometimes awkward facts, should be determinants of policy. For example, we haven’t had a traffic officer at the Lewis street intersection for eight years and there have been no officers on permanent traffic duty at any intersection for some months!

In short, modern policing has already been implemented. Our estimable police chief, supported by the first selectman, introduced plainclothes police patrols, the ORCA initiative — “Organized Retail Criminal Activity,” and policemen on bikes. How that appeals to my memories of the country of my origin! The result is that we have a greater police presence on the Avenue than before and when it comes to directing traffic, officers now have the discretion to step into the intersections and start directing traffic if they judge it necessary.

And what has been the consequence of all these changes? It’s not measurable but Greenwich Avenue is still “The Ave.” with no loss of reputation in my view because people still come from far and wide. Motorists and pedestrians are self-regulating at the intersections with nary an accident and crime has been significantly reduced because the police are now actively involved with patrons and shop owners in a way that the erstwhile traffic officers never could be. If we really think about it the biggest change in terms of our “look” has been the COVID-induced restaurant enclosures, and they will be followed soon by intersection “bumpouts.” So the times they are a-changing, and Greenwich Avenue is adapting.

Perhaps in that fact, the ability to adapt, we should see the true nature of our brand. We now enjoy a transformed Greenwich Avenue and modern policing, efficient and effective. We should welcome it. I hope members of the RTM will accept the new normal. As for me, behold a traditionalist who has evolved into a modernist!

John Blankley is a former Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.