HARTFORD – The easing of a state police directive to limit trooper interaction with the public during the pandemic appears to have returned traffic enforcement, which had cratered in 2020, to typical levels, the head of the state police told a panel of legislators on Thursday.
According to State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, police Commissioner James Rovella told legislators “that things are starting to get back to normal,” and had the numbers to back it up. Osten is co-chair of the legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Security.
Rovella and other state police brass met with the panel to discuss priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and addressed issues including what the state police union says is all-time low morale at the agency driven by anti-police legislation and rhetoric from lawmakers.
The union says morale and the COVID directive are the two main factors in a sharp decline in the number of traffic stops, which dropped by more than half from 157,000 in 2019 to just under 76,000 in 2020.
Rovella, who through a spokesman declined to comment after the meeting, told legislators that there were nearly 112,000 stops in the first 11 months of 2021 – a number expected to increase by perhaps another 10,000 when December is factored in.
“I think 2020 was an abnormality,” Osten said, noting the directive that spring for troopers to refrain from enforcing minor traffic violations to limit contact with drivers and reduce the risk of infection to both the public and police. “It looks like they’re pretty much back on target to meet the numbers that they had in 2019.”
The decline in enforcement came as reckless and speeding drivers became more common on Connecticut’s roads, and traffic-related fatalities increased to a record 326 last year.
Osten said that while that number is tragically high, it is not completely out of line with recent totals of 301 in 2020, 250 in 2019, and 297 in 2018.
She said that Rovella and legislators did not discuss any specific measure that would be taken to address the rise in traffic deaths.
“I don’t think people are driving faster because they’re not being ticketed,” she said. “They’re driving faster because we’ve gotten into bad habits over the last two years.”
On the issue of morale, Rovella told the panel that it is a nationwide police problem in the wake of COVID and police-accountability laws, which many officers feel erode their ability to do their job and can unfairly threaten their livelihood.
Committee co-chair State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, said the “data-driven” meeting did not focus much on the question of morale, which she said is likely a symptom of the pandemic, something virtually the entire nation is experiencing.
“My morale is low – morale in the country is low,” Horn said. “This a tough moment when we ought to be crawling out of this and now we’re back in it.”
The ranking Republicans on the committee, State Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer in Stonington, and State Sen. Dan Champagne, a retired police officer from Vernon, did not respond to requests for comment.
Both Horn and Osten said that hiring more officers to address morale and other related issues will continue to be a priority.
The last two state budgets have included funding for training dozens of recruits, and there are 64 ready to graduate from the state police academy in April.
Another 1,700 people have applied to enter the next training class.
At the same time, Osten said about 115 troopers are eligible to retire before June 1, when changes in annual cost-of-living adjustments to state-employee pensions are expected to spark a wave of departures.
She said she would like to see a total force of about 1,000 troopers – about 100 more than are now on the job.
“The Commissioner outlined a system that has been under stress relative to staffing and that is being worked on,” Osten said.
The meeting came a day after a police reform panel created as part of 2020 police-accountability legislation released its final report.
Among its 20 recommendations is one that police be banned from stopping drivers for violations such as broken headlights, improperly displayed license plates and having window tinting darker than state regulations allow.
The report by the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, which counts Rovella among its dozen members, cited data that Black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately pulled over for such violations.
Other recommendations include more training for officers regarding how to handle interactions with people with disabilities, who make up 30 to 50 percent of those killed in confrontations with police, according the the report.
Police departments that do not currently have their own crisis-intervention teams of mental health experts and social workers to assist in such situations, or do not have access to one outside its agency, should be mandated to create one, the task force advised.
It also recommended creating local civilian interview panels to participate in hiring and promotion of officers, and increasing hiring of minority officer candidates.
The report will be among the input legislators will use as they craft bills during the 12-week session that begins next month.