A rookie state police trooper caught stealing from a gun shop gets to keep his job, while eight recruits at the police academy who admitted trying to cheat on a test are fired just days before they were to graduate later this week, possibly ending their careers before they started.
Details of these two highly-charged situations came to light late last week when state police released internal investigation reports on them, but whether the punishment handed down is equitable remains an open question.
And hanging over both incidents and the police response to them is a severe and growing understaffing issue that the agency is scrambling to deal with as public safety and law enforcement have become perhaps the hottest political topics in an election year that will see races for governor and all 151 seats in the General Assembly.
At the center of the complex intersection of these issues is James Rovella, the former Hartford police chief picked by Democrat Gov. Ned Lamont to head the state police as Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
In a series of recent public hearings before legislative committees, Rovella has faced pointed questioning on myriad issues and proposed bills, mainly from Republicans and much of it focused on how he is dealing with a staffing erosion that has seen the force drop from about 1,240 five years ago to under 900 today.
In the coming weeks, at least 55 more troopers – including nine of his top 10 command staff – are expected to retire before changes to state pension and medical benefits kick in July 1.
One of them, Lt. Col. Jay DelGrosso, who is in charge of day-to-day field operations, was just named police chief in Stonington, where he formerly was an officer.
Rovella has also faced harsh criticism from the trooper’s union, which says the wave of retirements is in part being fueled by all-time low morale, driven by what it views as a lack of support from top management and anti-police sentiment from the public and politicians across the nation and in Connecticut.
“I Didn’t Get You Into This Problem”
Republicans have seized on the issue, including at a hearing last week on Lamont’s sweeping public-safety proposal that includes a list of new restrictions on where the state’s 170,000 gun-permit holders can carry their weapons in public.
A tense exchange between Rovella and State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, at the hearing before the Judiciary Committee was a visceral example of the contentious political climate surrounding law-enforcement.
“Violent crime has increased, and the Governor’s solution to that is banning lawfully-permitted firearms from the public square as opposed to bringing our numbers of troopers back to 1,240?” Dubitsky asked Rovella.
“No, that’s entirely incorrect sir,” Rovella replied. “Let me help you through this a little bit. The Governor nor myself got you into this problem with troopers. That happened five, six, seven, eight years ago when they failed to hire and replace troopers. I didn’t get you into this problem, but I’m going to get you out of it.”
Rovella said Lamont has hired 255 troopers since taking office in 2019, and the legislature has funded back-to-back training classes at the state police academy that typically add dozens of new troopers to the force after each six-month session.
“We’ll have you back over 1,100 (troopers) in 2023,” Rovella said.
“Well, I haven’t seen the officers and neither have you – they’re not on the street,” countered Dubitsky. “I don’t want to argue with you about it but the fact is that we are down to 880-some-odd officers from 1,200 and during that time crime increased and this is the Governor’s comprehensive bill to stem crime and it attacks law-abiding gun owners.”
“I’m not going to agree with that and if you want to continue the conversation…” Rovella began to respond before committee Chair State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, admonished both men to stop talking over one another.
“I’m finished,” Dubitsky said. “I think I made my point.”
Police Standards Diluted?
Rovella was also asked if the understaffing situation may be leading to the agency hiring less-desirable candidates in order to fill the ranks.
Without mentioning any specific incidents, State Rep. Michael Quinn, D-Meriden, asked Rovella whether he was “concerned at all in order to meet numbers that folks who might not have been hired before are going to end up being hired?”
“No,” Rovella replied. “There’s still a rigorous background and all the usual standards that go with that.”
And in the midst of the pressure to address the staffing shortage, last week’s firing of the eight recruits in the academy cheating incident only added to the debate – and the staffing problem itself.
An internal investigation report released late last week said about 30 members of the class of 61 recruits had improperly downloaded a January test on motor-vehicle accident investigations before they were authorized to do so, and the eight were terminated after admitting to also working on it.
Rovella, who signed off on the firings, and other top brass said the episode damaged the credibility of the agency, and showed a lack of integrity and honesty vital to an officer’s ability to do the job.
“Their careers have to be held to a much different standard,” Rovella said of the recruits, who were escorted out of the Meriden academy after being fired last week – nine days before this Thursday’s scheduled graduation.
Trooper Showed “Standard Shoplifter Behavior”
But it can be debated whether that same standard, and the possible dilution of it as raised by State Rep. Quinn, applied to the punishment Rovella imposed last month on rookie Trooper Romello Lumpkin.
The 27-year-old Bloomfield resident was caught on security video stealing a pistol ammunition-loading device from a Newington gun shop while off-duty in September – just two weeks after graduating from the academy.
Also released last week, the agency’s internal investigation report concluded that Lumpkin had engaged in a series of deceptions involving store clerks before tucking the $54 metal magazine into his shorts when he was left alone at the counter and walking out with it and another that he had paid for.
The store manager later told police that she and her father, the owner, debated filing criminal charges against Lumpkin but decided not to because her father is a retired police officer who tries to “help out guys on the job” and “didn’t want to end somebody’s career before it started.”
Trooper Jeffrey Meninno of the agency’s Special Licensing and Firearms Unit said in the report that he had advised the manager to have Newington police pursue the case because he felt the shop “was trying to do a favor for someone who didn’t deserve it.”
Meninno, the report said, told the manager that the Lumpkin was still a probationary trooper in training and so could be fired at any time, that his behavior is not how troopers conduct themselves, and that “he would come down and arrest the suspect himself.”
Meninno also told her that Lumpkin is someone that “the state is going to be strapped with for the next 25 years.”
The manager did call Newington police, not to press charges, but to have Lumpkin put on a list of people who are banned from entering the store under threat of arrest for trespassing.
After reviewing the store’s security video, the report quotes Newington Officer Thomas Bugbee as saying that Lumpkin’s demeanor, including walking around and glancing at security cameras right after concealing the magazine was “very deliberate” and “standard shoplifter behavior.”
Bugbee said in the report that he concluded there was legal “probable cause” to arrest Lumpkin, and that when he called Lumpkin to tell him he was banned from the store, Lumpkin gave him an account of the incident that was “hard to believe.”
Lumpkin had shown a store employee his state police badge and photo identification during the transaction, which authorizes him to buy a high-capacity magazine.
The store manager told investigators that if a customer identifies as a trooper, store clerks “trusts them and may leave them on their own, as in this case.”
In his interview with state police internal-affairs investigators, Lumpkin initially tried to cast the incident as a mistake and said that he didn’t realize he had left the store with the stolen magazine until the shop contacted him later that day.
The report said Lumpkin stated that “if it had been his intention to steal anything he would not have used his personal credit card or identified himself with a photo ID beforehand.”
He eventually admitted, however, that he “left the store with a magazine that he did not pay for” and that he “feels terrible about how the incident has reflected on him and on the agency.”
Lumpkin eventually returned the magazine to the store, five days after being asked to.
Evidence of a Crime, But No Arrest
The report by state police Capt. Seth Mancini says that while Lumpkin was not charged with a crime, “the preponderance of the evidence in this case demonstrated that trooper trainee Lumpkin committed a (larceny) misdemeanor and the underlying conduct would adversely impact his ability to perform his job.”
It also stated that the incident’s “criminal nature,” reflects poorly on state police, “an agency charged with enforcing the very law that was broken.”
But despite the many conclusions in the report by his fellow troopers that Lumpkin was evasive and even untruthful with investigators and that the incident seriously compromised him and the agency, his punishment was ultimately a 10-day suspension that was scheduled to end Feb. 25.
He also was transferred to the state police barracks in Danielson from Hartford where he had been working – and where he theoretically could have been assigned to investigate a crime at the Newington gun shop from which he stole.
The discipline was imposed by state police Commander Stavros Mellekas and approved by Rovella, who worked with Lumpkin’s father when they were both on the Hartford force.
Other than releasing the report in response to state Freedom of Information requests, state police had refused public comment on specifics of Lumpkin’s case and discipline, which was reported last month based on information and documents obtained independently by CT Examiner.
The firing of the recruits, however, was publicized in a press release posted on the state police website and distributed to media statewide, leading to extensive coverage including televised comments by Rovella.
CT Examiner asked both Rovella and Mellekas for comment last week on whether they believe the punishment imposed on Lumpkin is consistent with the firing of the academy recruits.
As of today, neither has responded to the request.
Andy Matthews, the trooper’s union executive director, said transparency by police brass in these situations is vital for public confidence.
“I think that the public has a right to know why they make the decisions they do,” said Matthews, a retired state police Sergeant.
As far as the discipline imposed on Lumpkin when compared with the eight recruits, Matthews noted that both rookie troopers and recruits can be fired immediately at the discretion of the administration.
Of Lumpkin being allowed to remain in uniform, Matthews said:
“It’s the Commissioner and the Colonel that make the determination whether one stays employed or not. But we’ve had people terminated for less.”