One of eight state police recruits fired this week after an investigation concluded they cheated on a written exam says the group was unfairly singled out and that police Commissioner James Rovella’s statement that they did not immediately own up to the incident is not true.
The recruit told CT Examiner on Thursday that “about half” of the class of 61 recruits had improperly opened a digital link to the January test on motor-vehicle accident investigations, which the eight admitted they had also begun to work on before being authorized to do so.
“That was where I made my mistake because yeah, I shouldn’t have started working on it to begin with,” the recruit said. “But I think they used the eight of us as scapegoats pretty much because we were just the ones that were actually truthful and took ownership of what we did.”
The eight had continued training at the academy in Meriden after the January incident and were scheduled to graduate with the class next Thursday.
But on Tuesday evening, they were told as a group that they were fired and were ordered to leave the facility that night.
“They should have fired all the other people that were involved, but I think because of politics being involved they wouldn’t be able to justify firing 30-plus people from the academy,” the recruit said. “It’d be easier to fire the eight people that admitted to it.”
The recruit said the eight take particular exception to Rovella’s statement this week that “They had plenty of opportunity to be truthful and they weren’t. That in itself really follows a police officer throughout their career, especially when it becomes testifying and making arrests.”
The recruit said, “We took ownership of what happened,” the same night it occurred. “We admitted to it. A good quality to have is to own up to your mistakes and that’s exactly what we did. And so the Commissioner’s statement, we just don’t agree with it.”
Asked for comment Thursday, Rovella’s top aide, Brian Foley said: “I have not read the completed internal affairs investigation yet. It will likely contain those details.”
The recruit gave the following account of the incident and the events of the following weeks leading up to the group’s termination:
On the morning of Jan.6, the class received a digital link to the test in question, which the recruit said typically required them to “hit a blue button” that would open the document after an on-screen “countdown timer” signal to begin taking the exam.
This test, however, was a simple Word document that opened immediately without the other steps.
“There was no countdown. There was no timer. There was no button to click to actually begin the test,” the recruit said. “It was just a document posted as if it was any other document that would be posted. So, the document was available to all the recruits pretty much throughout the day.”
The digital platform was commonly used to post documents used for studying for exams, the recruit said, leading to confusion among the class.
Rovella acknowledged this week that the test was posted to the site in error.
“A trooper put a test onto a study guide site which it shouldn’t have been, but it was clearly marked as ‘exam,’” Rovella said. “The 61 cadets were told not to access that exam, not to look at it. Fifty-three of them got it and didn’t play with that exam.”
The recruit said the test being posted in apparent error quickly became a hot topic of conversation among the recruits, who live at the academy for the bulk of their training.
“Every room was talking about it in the hallways,” the recruit said. “And there were even several recruits that went as far as to print the exam. They took it to the bathroom and several recruits gathered around to look at it.”
That afternoon, a Sergeant instructor informed the class that he was aware the exam had been posted early, and so it would be replaced by a different test that would be taken in writing as opposed to the normal digital format.
But when the class gathered in the academy’s auditorium to take the exam, the Sargent told them he was also aware that some had improperly opened the test and had begun working on it.
“He told the class that if they had any part in this, that the truth would be better than finding out through IT reports,” on recruits’ computers that would show if they opened the document, the recruit said. “His exact words were ‘tell the truth now or God help you tomorrow.’”
The Sergeant told anyone who had worked on the exam to raise their hand, stand up and go to the rear of the room.
“So we raised our hands immediately and went to the back of the auditorium,” the recruit said of the eight who were eventually fired.
Many others in the class also raised their hand to indicate they had opened the test, the recruit said, but the Sergeant said only those who had also worked on it should move to the back of the room.
The eight were then told to retrieve their laptops from their rooms and write a memo detailing their involvement in the incident.
The rest of the class remained in the auditorium and took the written test, which the recruit said was “the same exact exam that was posted online, even though they had already looked at the test and the instructors were aware that they had looked at the test.”
The next day, the eight who admitted working on the test were given a different exam, and little else was said about the events of the previous day.
About a month later, however, the eight were informed that they were going to be interviewed by the academy’s Recruit Termination Board.
“They called us in one-by-one for about an hour and we basically just explained to the staff why we wanted to become a state trooper and why we did what we did,” regarding the exam, the recruit said. “We gave them details about the times of when we accessed the document and then they just told us that they would get back to us later on and they’d make a decision of what kind of disciplinary action we’d be facing.”
For the next several weeks, the recruit said, little else was said about the matter, until they were informed that the incident was now the subject of an internal-affairs investigation, which state police Commander Col. Stavros Mellekas told CT Examiner in mid-February that he had ordered “based upon evolving information.”
The recruit said the class was in training one evening around that time when a group of troopers wearing suits walked in the room.
“It was Internal Affairs,” the recruit said. “They pulled us to the side and they served us with paperwork that said we were under investigation for a cheating incident and that we could contact an attorney if we wanted representation. They said they were going to get all the IT reports of everyone who opened the exam.”
The group was interviewed individually the next day by internal affairs investigators, who the recruit said told them that checks of the classes’ computers showed that “many other people” had opened the test beside the eight that were later fired.
“They told me that the internal affairs investigation was a good thing for us because it was going to uncover a lot of other people that were involved that just didn’t admit to it,” the recruit said.
There was little or no communication about the matter for the next several weeks, the recruit said, until last Tuesday.
The class had just taken its final exam, a taxing physical-ability test.
“After we showered they told us the Commissioner was at the facility and he wanted to address us and they told the eight of us to go upstairs,” the recruit said.
But instead of Rovella, a training Sergeant and Captain walked into the room.
“All they said was, listen, this isn’t good news,” the recruit said. “The investigation determined you guys cheated. And here’s your termination paperwork.”
The group was escorted to their rooms and told to turn in their equipment and leave the academy as soon as possible.
“At that moment, I just couldn’t believe what happened,” the recruit said. “I get where I am wrong, but half of the recruits have also taken part in cheating and it’s just not fair that we pay for a mistake that others don’t have to pay for and their graduation is set for next Thursday. We feel that this needs to be further investigated and the graduation should be postponed.”
The recruits fear that they also may not be able to be hired by another department, under a provision of the Police Accountability Act passed by the state General Assembly in 2020.
The law prohibits a police department from hiring an officer who “was dismissed for malfeasance or other serious misconduct calling into question such person’s fitness to serve as a police officer,” or an officer who “resigned or retired from such officer’s position while under investigation for such malfeasance or other serious misconduct.”
Foley, Rovella’s spokesman, said Thursday that it is unclear whether that provision would apply to the fired recruits because they had not yet become sworn police officers.
“That matter is currently ongoing,” Foley said.