A retirement exodus of nearly 90 veteran Connecticut State Police troopers, including almost all top command staff, has created an experience vacuum that is compromising the effectiveness of the agency and the safety of the public, the trooper’s union alleges.
The retirements that began April 1 have not only worsened chronic understaffing, but have prompted the agency to loosen promotion standards that will allow less-experienced troopers to fill those top supervisory jobs.
“It’s a failure of management,” said Andy Matthews, the troopers’ union executive director. “The commissioner knew that this was coming for years and he did nothing to prepare for it. I don’t think they understand that we have a huge void in the agency when it comes to institutional knowledge or even the ability to lead.”
The exiting troopers, with a combined experience approaching 2,000 years, are among a wave of thousands of state employees retiring or expected to before unfavorable changes to pension and medical benefits take effect July 1.
Commissioner James Rovella has declined to address the issue with CT Examiner, despite multiple requests over the past month.
Through his civilian assistant, former Hartford officer Brian Foley, Rovella has repeatedly referred questions to Col. Stavros Mellekas, the agency’s commanding officer.
“The Colonel is the best person to handle your questions,” Foley said in an email last month. “He will have the specific staffing numbers and policies you are inquiring about.”
Mellekas, however, has not replied to a series of inquiries on the issue.
The office of Gov. Ned Lamont did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Among the troopers who have retired or filed paperwork to do so by July 1 are three lieutenant colonels who oversee day-to-day workings of the agency:
Jack Goncalves, commanding officer of the Office of Field Operations, has filed for retirement on July 1.
Todd Harbeck, commanding officer of the Office of Administrative Services, has filed a non-binding intent to retire on that date.
And Jay DelGrosso, former head of field operations, retired in April after being named chief of the Stonington police department.
At least four majors, five captains, several lieutenants and a dozen sergeants are also among the group.
Late last week, the agency enacted modified, less-stringent promotion policies designed to more easily fill those upper-echelon posts.
According to Matthews, the most significant of the changes was to reduce the time required for a sergeant to become a lieutenant from two years to one.
Once the rank of lieutenant is achieved, he explained, only one year is required in that job before being eligible for promotion to top-level posts of major, captain and lieutenant colonel.
That sets up a scenario, he said, where a rookie trooper who is promoted to sergeant after the minimum of five years can join the command staff after just seven years in uniform.
“After seven years you’re a Major running a district? That doesn’t even make sense,” said Matthews, a retired state police sergeant. “That’s not enough time to be a seasoned leader in an organization like this, but that’s where we find ourselves.”
Matthews said the union is concerned that placing relatively inexperienced troopers in positions that can involve life-or-death decisions may jeopardize the safety of both troopers and citizens.
“This will hurt people,” he said. “We need command staff that actually know the job and know how to protect people. You’ve got to have supervisors that the troopers can believe in. We have supervisors even right now that don’t know what they’re doing.”
Matthews said the situation has been brewing for several years, driven by previous retirements and increasing difficulty in finding suitable new recruits.
The current staffing level of about 875 troopers is at least 300 less than what it was a decade ago.
Part of the decline has been widely attributed to a perceived climate of anti-police sentiment that has prompted veterans to retire as soon as they reach the mandatory 20 years of service, and discouraged potential troopers from applying to the training academy.
In the last year, 124 troopers have been promoted to sergeant, Matthews said, an extraordinary number that demonstrates how the overall experience level in the agency has diminished.
“When you promote 124 troopers to sergeant, you have another 124 vacancies for troopers,” he said, noting that standards for a recruit to enter the state police training academy also have been relaxed in order to bolster the force.
The staffing decline, especially after more than 60 retirements in April, also means that troopers are being ordered to work extra shifts on a regular basis, further straining their stamina and morale.
“Our troopers are getting mandated-in to work like never before because they just don’t have the bodies to fill the slots,” he said.
While praising the leadership of Mellekas, Matthews said there is widespread discontent among the force with Rovella, a former Hartford police chief appointed by Lamont in 2019.
“If you’re eligible to retire and you see the direction this agency is going under the Commissioner, you would leave too,” he said.
State police have been aggressively seeking new troopers to try to counter the departures, including through a “#yourtimeisnow” social media campaign and by running back-to-back, six-month training classes at the training academy in Meriden.
That push to strengthen the ranks suffered a setback this spring when eight of 61 cadets in a training class were fired just days before graduation for trying to cheat on an exam earlier in the year.
The next class of trainees is scheduled to graduate this fall.