MERIDEN – Allegations of cheating involving eight members of the state police recruit training class now enrolled at the academy are under investigation and could lead to discipline including termination, state police officials confirmed Wednesday to CT Examiner.
At the same time, a debate is intensifying over whether the training program for the 62-member class was shortened by order of Commissioner James Rovella for political reasons as the troopers’ union claims – a charge that police administrators and legislators deny.
“There was no direct order. Nothing’s watered down or shortened,” said Col. Stavros Mellekas, the agency’s highest-ranking commanding officer responsible for most day-to-day functions. “You have to make things fit because we are going to train another class immediately after that class because of our manpower,” shortage. “The fact that we’re trying to pump two classes out at the same time, you know, that causes things to fluctuate but we ensure that the proper training is there. We’re right on line with what we always do.”
But Andy Matthews, the 900-member union’s executive director, said he has first-hand knowledge that Rovella issued an order that the academy’s program be reduced by about a month in order to accelerate its graduation from late April to late March.
Matthews claims the move was designed to blunt police criticism of understaffing, among other issues that could lead to a negative public perception of Gov. Ned Lamont – who appointed Rovella – and other officials facing reelection this fall.
Rescheduling the date of graduation would allow the next class to complete its training just before the November election, Matthews said.
“The Colonel himself told us that the Commissioner instructed him to do that,” Matthews said of a conversation between him, Mellekas and union President Sgt. John Castiline. “That’s a fact – one hundred percent. And we will swear to that under oath.”
Matthews said the union this week asked that two weeks of training be added back, but were denied by Mellekas, who he described as highly-respected by troopers.
“The Colonel’s a great man and a great leader but he’s stuck between the guy that appointed him, the Commissioner, and standing up for his troopers and doing the right thing,” he said. “Our issue isn’t the Colonel – it’s the Commissioner.”
Asked Wednesday if the commissioner had issued the directive as Matthews alleges, Rovella’s assistant, Brian Foley, said “I’m not aware of any such order.”
CT Examiner has requested an interview with Rovella, a former Hartford police chief who has yet to comment publicly on the matter.
Mellekas said he suspects that Matthews may be referring to a tentative schedule that was modified as a normal course of business.
“I can’t speak for the academy if they printed out a document like that,” he said. “It could be a draft or something with tentative dates. Nothing’s set in stone.”
Mellekas said class schedules commonly “fluctuate at the end,” of the program.
“Sometimes maybe some part of it may be cut because you want to get the other class in there, too,” he said. “The number one consideration is to meet the standards that we need and we are doing that.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee that oversees the state police said they obtained information from the agency showing that the length of the current training program is consistent with other classes in the past six years.
The class now at the academy would have 195 days of training if it graduates on March 24 as scheduled, they said, and all other classes since 2015 have had between 188 and 214 days of training.
“They’re all very much within a similar time frame,” said committee co-chair State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “That shows there is no tomfoolery going on in regard to politics. At least from my perspective.”
Matthews countered that the actual number of training days class-by-class are not an issue as much as the accelerated graduation date, which he called “political nonsense” by Rovella.
Osten and committee co-chair Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, praised Rovella’s leadership and took particular exception to Matthew’s earlier statements that reduced training would endanger the safety of troopers and the public.
“If somebody’s going to make a claim that this is a life or death situation and that we are intentionally putting officers and the public at risk I would hope there would be facts to back that up,” Horn said.
They also noted that since 2020 recruits receive 400 hours of on-the-job training with an experienced trooper, an increase of 40 hours over the previous standard.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Stonington police officer Greg Howard, said he was not aware of the academy program being accelerated.
“If there’s any watered-down training I may be concerned, but at this moment we don’t know if that is happening,” he said. “I do know that certain segments of training go in and out of the curriculum and it’s constantly evolving because the job evolves.”
Howard said he did not have enough information about the cheating investigation to comment.
Osten and Horn said they had not heard of the situation, but Osten said that in light of the investigation, police administrators are “doing the right thing. It seems to me the system works.”
Matthews on Wednesday confirmed information obtained by CT Examiner that the allegations of cheating emerged late last month, and involve eight recruits working on a written test before they were authorized to do so.
All of the recruits had been given digital links to the online test, which the eight allegedly opened improperly and began working on the test surreptitiously during a separate classroom session.
Another recruit noticed the activity and reported it to academy staff, Matthews confirmed.
Mellekas said the matter has been presented to the agency’s Termination Review Board, which has already forwarded him and other administrators its recommendation on potential discipline.
Mellekas is now conducting a follow-up investigation and will make his own recommendation on discipline to Rovella, who has final say on whether the recruits should be terminated or retrained and stay at the academy.
“I worked on it all day today and I’m working on it still,” Mellekas said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re large reports and they’re pretty important. You’re terminating someone’s career.”
He said he expected to make his recommendation to Rovella by week’s end, and the recruits under suspicion remain at the academy.
“They’re continuing with their training and if the action takes place it takes place,” he said of possible termination. “As far as the allegations – they are just that. There’s a process and you just don’t just cut to the chase and discipline.”
Mellekas declined to discuss details of the circumstances that led to the investigation of the recruits.
“I don’t think that would be appropriate because it’s still open,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair to do whether it’s true or not.”
Matthews said that if the allegations prove true, the union would advocate for disciplining those involved.
“It’s not what is expected of a state trooper and it goes to the integrity of the applicant,” he said. “And we would think that the agency has a responsibility to take corrective action.”