MERIDEN – Nine days before they were scheduled to graduate after six months of instruction at the State Police Training Academy, eight state police recruits have been fired for cheating on a written exam.
“This was a very unfortunate set of circumstances and allegations such as these are not taken lightly,” Colonel Stavros Mellekas, the agency’s top sworn officer, said in a statement. “From start to finish, we demand that our recruits maintain the integrity of the Connecticut State Police.”
Part of a class of 62 scheduled to graduate March 24, the recruits were accused of cheating on a written exam in January by opening a digital link to the test and working on it during a separate class before they were authorized.
Another recruit in the class who noticed the activity reported it to academy staff.
The firings were recommended by the agency’s Recruit Termination Board, an action that was backed by a subsequent internal investigation conducted by Mellekas that found the recruits violated regulations regarding cheating and plagiarism.
The cheating allegations were first made public in February by CT Examiner, which has made a request for the internal investigation report under state Freedom of Information laws.
Repeated requests for the report have not been fulfilled.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a former state corrections officer who chairs the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, said she agreed with the firings.
“That’s what the police academy is for – weeding out people that we don’t want to see in a position of public trust,” she said. “We can’t have people on the job that are going to cheat on an exam.”
Another committee member, Stonington police officer and Republican State Rep. Greg Howard, said “it is imperative that those men and women who hold such an office be of the highest moral character and meet the highest ethical standards.”
“An overwhelming majority of our Connecticut officers and troopers meet and exceed this bar every day,” Howard said. “But the few that would stain the many should always be weeded out.”
The firings worsen a chronic understaffing problem within the state police that has drawn criticism from the trooper’s union and the attention of legislators with authority over the agency.
State Police Commissioner James Rovella was asked about the staffing issue at a hearing Monday before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
He said the force now totals 888 troopers, “with a class scheduled to graduate later this month – anywhere from 50 to 60 troopers,” an apparent reference to the firings that were made public Tuesday.
Rovella added that 55 more troopers are scheduled to retire in April, and has previously said that nine of his top ten command staff will be leaving before July 1, when changes to state pension and medical benefits take effect.
“So basically, the incoming class is going to be a wash?” Rovella was asked at the hearing by State Rep. Michael Quinn, D-Meriden.
“Yes,” replied Rovella.
Quinn said he had witnessed the effects of short-staffing himself when he did a “ride-along” with troopers in November at the Troop I barracks in Bethany.
“It was clear to me that you don’t have enough people to cover the territory,” Quinn told Rovella. “You clearly need more help.”
Asked if she was concerned that the situation would further exacerbate the understaffing issue, Osten said that she hopes that the three training classes included in the current state budget will help address it.
“That’s exactly why we have more classes planned,” she said. “You can’t just have somebody continue in a class with an act such as this. It’s unfortunate but it was the right call to make.”
Rovella also said at Monday’s hearing that while about 3,500 people had typically applied to enter the training academy just two years ago when he was appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont, that interest has recently declined by more than half.
The state police union has said that the understaffing situation — also driven by what it calls growing anti-police sentiment from the public and politicians — has led to a watering-down of entrance and training requirements at the academy.
The union has cited an incident last fall in which a rookie trooper was caught on surveillance video stealing an item from a Newington gun shop just two weeks after graduating from the academy.
The shop declined to press charges against the trooper, whom Rovella recently suspended for 10 days and transferred from the Hartford barracks to Danielson – discipline that many active and retired troopers called far too lenient and indicative of the weakening standards to become a trooper.
“Are you concerned at all that in order to meet numbers that folks who might not have been hired before are going to end up being hired?” Quinn asked Rovella.
“No,” Rovella replied. “There’s still a rigorous background and all the usual standards that go with that.”
Through his aide, Brian Foley, Rovella declined to comment Tuesday.
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.