Notice more state police parked on the side of the highway or stopping drivers lately?
It’s a sight that may make some driver pulses race, but signals that traffic enforcement by state police is on the rise after dropping by more than 50 percent in 2020.
With fewer troopers out sick or in quarantine, and about 100 new troopers on the roads who graduated from the academy and received their field training with an experienced trooper late last year, state police say they have more resources to get back to pre-pandemic enforcement levels.
“You have all these factors that started with the pandemic and you gradually have to come out of that and get back to normal,” said Lt. Colonel Jay DelGrosso, commanding officer of the agency’s Office of Field Operations. “So we put a plan together to get everybody focused back on aggressive driving,” that has spiked during the pandemic.
Part of the initiative is called Operation Overwatch, which began late last summer but was halted soon after when the Omicron outbreak hit the state and caused an extraordinary amount of absences on the force.
DelGrosso said that while typical absences due to sickness on the 900-member force are about 10 per day, that spiked to nearly 90 in recent weeks due to Omicron before again subsiding.
Operation Overwatch, and other enforcement programs gradually being introduced, are designed to increase drivers’ compliance with traffic laws but not necessarily to ticket them, DelGrosso said.
“Compliance might mean that they have to get a ticket, or they might have to get arrested or they might just have to get a verbal warning or just know that you’re there,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that if I have a trooper that decides to do their paperwork on the side of the road, you’re going to get compliance just from that.”
DelGrosso said discretion on how to handle a stop is up to the trooper, not supervisors or the administration.
“That’s why they’re trained,” he said. “They need to have that discretion on the best way to handle that stop. You can’t have that come from the top.”
The executive director of the state police union, however, says there is more to the story.
“They claim that they don’t want to take away the troopers’ discretion but the message the troopers are getting is that the command staff wants tickets,” said Andy Matthews, who retired as a traffic sergeant several years ago. “And we don’t need that. When you give somebody a ticket, you escalate the situation. I’m not saying let them get away with it. But when somebody is just running late and happens to be speeding they have more respect for you and the state police when you don’t give them a ticket.”
Matthews said the more important issue for troopers is restrictions that the state legislature made to the state’s police-pursuit policy last year that prohibit police from pulling over reckless drivers unless they are suspected of committing — or about to commit — a felony or crime of violence.
The policy also bans police from determining the identity of any passengers in cars that are stopped or searching them for weapons or narcotics, which Matthews said removes a major tool police have traditionally used to solve crimes.
“That’s the real problem,” he said. “You’re handcuffing the troopers in the field and not letting them do their job. But we’re pulling over the soccer mom that’s going to the grocery store or the dad taking his kids to Cub Scouts that might have been speeding.”
DelGrosso would not directly address Matthew’s comments, but said it is not the police’s job to get into debates about the law.
“Whatever laws have been given to us to enforce, those are our laws,” he said.
He said that increased enforcement will be statewide, and targeted on “hot” areas with high rates of speeding and accidents, notably the major interstates and the Merritt Parkway.
A recent multi-day enforcement effort along I-95 from New Haven to Bridgeport resulted in “a lot of contacts,” he said, and was a highly-visible sign that drivers will be seeing many more police cruisers on the road and perhaps in their rear-view mirror as they travel the state.
“If we find areas that are very hot we put together a game plan to address that,” DelGrosso said. “In those areas, you can’t miss us.”