Crumbling morale within the Connecticut State Police, a spike in fatal accidents and a sharp decline in traffic stops during the pandemic are among the topics lawmakers will discuss this week in a meeting with Police Commissioner James Rovella.
The Thursday meeting called by leading members of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee comes in the wake of statements last week by Andy Matthews, executive director of the 900-member state police union, that morale is at an all-time low due to what he describes as anti-police sentiment and legislation from the Capitol.
For both state and local police, the combined number of stops statewide dropped from 512,000 in 2019 to about 188,000 in 2021.
Matthews said the political climate, the impact of COVID on the willingness of troopers to interact with the public, and the passage of police accountability legislation are major reasons why traffic enforcement has dropped by about half since 2020 even as traffic deaths reach unprecedented levels.
State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, ranking member on the public safety committee and a long-time Stonington Police detective, said he understands how a fear of COVID and anti-police rhetoric has affected how police approach their job.
“Low morale in any field will lead to less production and in police work, less self-initiated activity,” Howard said. “I have had countless officers tell me that they don’t want to be the test case and many are standing down or doing the bare minimum to limit their exposure to liability. So, likely the return of police morale and high self-initiated activity in Connecticut may be far off.”
Meanwhile, enforcement is down sharply in total stops, tickets issued and warnings given to drivers.
Troopers pulled over about 76,000 vehicles in 2020, less than half the 157,000 stopped in 2019. Through October 2021, the latest statistics available, about 60,000 stops were made by state police.
“If you think it seems more dangerous out on Connecticut’s highways and interstates lately, you’re right,” state transportation department Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said. “It is a real crisis. It’s happening here and it’s happening across the country. We are seeing an unprecedented increase in fatalities.”
There were 326 traffic-related deaths in 2021, according to the Institute for Municipal and Regional Planning at UConn, which reported 301 in 2020, 250 in 2019, and 297 in 2018.
“Traffic enforcement is not just a state police issue,” said State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a long-time corrections officer and co-chair of the Public Safety Committee. “It’s all departments and I think a lot of it is that we’ve been bouncing back and forth with COVID and that’s a big part of the problem. Would I like to see an increase in traffic enforcement? Absolutely – I’d like to see that across the board.”
Osten said the legislature has shown its support for police in part by approving two new classes of state troopers in each of its last two budgets, millions more in state bond funds late last year to improve state police barracks, headquarters and other facilities, as well as pay raises for troopers and financial assistance to municipal departments.
Matthews, who retired as a traffic-patrol sergeant, pointed to a change the legislature made to statewide police pursuit policy in 2019 that allows officers to chase a vehicle only if they have reasonable suspicion that the driver has or will commit a crime of violence or is an imminent danger to the public or the officer.
He said the policy is a key reason why troopers are often unwilling to stop or chase reckless drivers, despite the potential danger to the public.
“The bad guys know that we basically can’t pursue them anymore,” Matthews said. “Essentially, it has to be a fleeing felon who’s a risk to themselves or someone else and has committed a felony in the process. So when cars go by troopers at 100-miles-an-hour-plus, they don’t chase the car.”
Matthews said that understaffing of the state police ranks is also a significant issue. The force now totals about 970, he said, about 300 less than a decade ago.
He estimated that the reduced staffing saves the state about $57 million a year, which he characterized as a de-facto, strategic “defunding” of the force – a term that became part of the backlash against law enforcement nationwide after a string of police killings of suspects in the last few years.
“They have been defunding us for a long time,” Matthews said of the state legislature, which approves the agency’s budget. “Fewer police means less interaction with the public means fewer arrests means less incarceration. We have the same staffing levels at the troops per-shift as what we had in the 1970s. And it’s really disappointing.”
Matthews also pointed to a shrinking number of troopers assigned to the traffic services unit, which he said has dropped from 62 in 2009 to its current 11.
“I have argued repeatedly that if you want to address fatalities, if you want to take our highways back from reckless operators, then you should build up your traffic services team,” he said.
The union backed Gov. Ned Lamont in his 2018 campaign, but Matthews said it is “highly unlikely” it will endorse him or any other candidate in the race for governor this fall because of the lack of political support.
Tuesday, Lamont released a statement asserting that his administration has beefed up the state police force, and defending his signing of the police accountability act in 2020.
“Gov. Lamont’s actions have added 318 new troopers to their ranks, which shows a clear commitment to supporting our men and women in uniform,” according to a statement sent by spokesman Max Reiss. “Our administration finds critical the high standards for police laid out in the police accountability law, which has not and will not stop our state troopers from doing their jobs to the best of their ability.”
State police Commissioner James Rovella, a former Hartford police chief, was appointed by Lamont to oversee the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. A request for comment from Rovella was referred to the office of state police Commanding Officer Colonel Stavros Mellekas, whose office said he was unavailable Tuesday.
Also scheduled to attend Thursday’s meeting is public safety committee co-chair State Rep. Maria Horn, a Democrat who represents nine towns in the state’s northwest corner.
Horn said she will raise with Rovella her concerns about highway and road safety, and a drop in enforcement.
“Nationwide, COVID-19 has been cited as the top cause of death for police officers over the last two years, and we know that it is a major factor in reduced enforcement,” Horn said. “We also know that we need more officers, and that staffing levels have put significant stress on police departments throughout the state. Those two factors could explain the drop in enforcement, or there may be other factors at play – we do not know.”
Howard said he will focus on what Rovella plans to do to curb the rise in highway deaths.
“I am looking forward to hearing his response to this data, the root causes, and what, if anything, the legislature can do to increase enforcement and compliance with our traffic laws and decrease the fatal crashes on our roads,” he said.