HARTFORD – State police Commissioner James Rovella and local police chiefs from around the state will testify today at a legislative hearing on mental health issues faced by police that is expected to lead to action in the General Assembly session that starts Wednesday.
The hearing before the Public Safety and Security Committee is intended to inform lawmakers about specific challenges related to police work that could be addressed by legislation.
Committee co-chair State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she would like to see an increase in the availability of mental health services for police who commonly face high rates of stress leading to mental health issues such as substance abuse and suicide – but are often reluctant to seek assistance.
“We know that a lot of people in law enforcement won’t seek help because they feel they’ll be judged and it will impact their ability to work,” she said. “We need to make sure we have enough social workers and psychologists and those kinds of things available so we can strengthen these programs and any others that we might implement. And we need to be very sensitive to the fact that if officers need to talk to someone that there’s not a consequence to that.”
Rovella, a former Hartford police chief appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont as Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection overseeing the State Police, is first on the list of speakers.
Asked Monday for comment from Rovella, his assistant and former Hartford officer Brian Foley said:
“Mental health is a critical issue to so many in the state. This meeting will hopefully help our first responders better serve the state.”
Also scheduled to testify are two members of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association – East Hartford Chief Scott Sansom and Ledyard Chief John Rich – as well as Milford Chief Keith Mello, who in 2018 was named by Lamont to head the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council, which sets training standards and issues certification needed to be an officer.
Sansom, Rich and Mello did not respond to requests for comment.
Osten said that while Rovella is dealing with a number of other issues including understaffing, low police morale and still-pending allegations of cheating by recruits at the training academy, she anticipates the hearing will be narrowly focused on mental health.
“People will ask different questions but I expect them to stay on target,” she said. “We’re going into a session where other bills will be available for people to talk about other things.”
Other leading members of the public safety committee, State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, and State Greg Howard, R-Stonington, did not respond to requests for comment.
Howard, a Stonington police officer, and other House Republicans last week announced that they will pursue a number of public safety initiatives this session, including revisions to the 2020 police accountability bill passed in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd – a measure that many police officers and organizations have called too restrictive.
The impact of the police accountability bill on mental well-being of officers also will be highlighted in remarks at the meeting by Andy Matthews, a retired trooper and executive director of the 900-member state police union that has been sharply critical of both the legislature and Rovella’s leadership.
He said that as troopers’ morale continues to erode, Rovella has done little to support an agency peer-counseling program that employs experienced troopers to aid colleagues in negotiating highly-stressful situations on the job and in their aftermath.
“If they really care about the mental health of police officers they should do things that don’t cause more stress by attacking the profession or the individual officer,” Matthews said of Rovella and the legislature. “They should show their support by allowing police officers to actually do their job.”
Meanwhile, Lamont on Monday released his own law-enforcement legislative priorities designed to help curb escalating gun violence in the state, and especially in urban areas.
Signaling the high profile that public safety is expected to play in the General Assembly session and in the fall statewide elections, the Governor said he will submit the proposal on the session’s first day.
The $64 million package includes funding to double the number of officers trained annually for municipal and state police, and a “rapid pace of new state trooper classes.”
The funding would also support various gun-safety and regulation measures, “enable probation officers to reduce recidivism among juvenile and adult clients” and implement a first-in-the-nation approach to reimburse hospital-based violence intervention programs using Medicaid funding
“While Connecticut remains one of the safest states in the nation with a violent crime rate less than half of the national rate, one shooting is one too many, and it is our responsibility to enact sensible policies that make our communities safer,” Lamont said in a release. “These are commonsense proposals that are focused on protecting our neighborhoods, stopping the illegal flow of guns into our state, and providing law enforcement and the communities they serve with the resources they need to address the root causes of violence.”
Osten said other items on the public safety committee’s agenda for the upcoming session include prohibiting a police department from hiring an officer who was dismissed for malfeasance or who resigned or retired while under investigation from another department; allowing tribal police departments to issue pistol permits, allowing officers to wear religious head coverings; speeding the process for citizens to obtain motor-vehicle accident reports, and beefing up the system that mandates junkyards and scrap-metal dealers take detailed information from anyone selling an automobile catalytic converter, which have become a hot target for thieves.
“It’s the same thing that the police do with pawn shops and this is just increasing the information that they get on catalytic converters in particular,” Osten said, noting that it would include the name and address of the seller and the make and model and mileage of the vehicle from which it was taken, among other details. “We don’t want them to just take in 50 catalytic converters without asking these questions.”
Osten said the proposal was made by State Sen. Dan Champagne, a ranking Republican on committee and retired Vernon police officer, who did not respond to a request for comment.