A state police narcotics detective suspended and stripped of his police powers last week is suspected of stealing drugs seized in criminal cases, police sources have told CT Examiner on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.
And a day after the action was taken against Trooper Michael O’Hara – one of several troopers suspended in recent months – the agency’s Commanding Officer issued a department-wide memo urging the force to “lock down” its behavior in light of “recent negative incidents.”
Other troopers have been suspended after off-duty allegations made against them of sexual assault, hit-and-run driving, domestic violence and theft from a gun store.
The department also was rocked by an exam-cheating episode at the police training academy that led to the April firing of eight recruits.
“Incident circumstances cannot be changed, but these are not the first flaws and unfortunately will not be the last,” Col. Stavros Mellekas wrote in the Aug. 16 memo. “These incidents do not define us…our service to the State of Connecticut and traditions with integrity do. We will always have critics…but we need to step up and lock down behavior.”
In a telephone interview Monday with CT Examiner, Mellekas said he believes the department is being strained by a wave of recent retirements of dozens of troopers, including nearly all of its top ten command staff.
“The department is very junior and I wanted to remind them of the reputation of the state police and that they should uphold it,” Mellekas said of his memo. “They’ve got to wake up.”
Mellekas would not comment on the allegations against O’Hara, a 12-year trooper who was placed on administrative duty on Aug. 15 by Commissioner James Rovella pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
“Throughout this period of suspension, Trooper O’Hara is not authorized to represent the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection,” which includes the state police, according to a teletype sent under Rovella’s name to all police barracks last week.
O’Hara, a New London native who comes from a family of former troopers, was assigned to the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, which works with other state and federal law enforcement agencies including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sources say the DEA is now taking part in the investigation of O’Hara’s actions.
While not specifically addressing the O’Hara case, Mellekas told CT Examiner that “Mistakes are mistakes, but intentional criminal acts are not going to be tolerated and people will be held accountable.”
Approximately 90 troopers, or about 10 percent of the force with a combined experience of about 2,000 years, retired between April 1 and July 1 when unfavorable changes to pension and medical benefits for all state employees took effect.
That prompted the agency to loosen promotion standards to allow less-experienced troopers to fill those top supervisory jobs typically held by more senior staff.
Mellekas said that beyond the various incidents of misconduct, he is trying to stem what he sees as a more widespread degradation of the standards and reputation of the force, long considered among the most professional in the nation.
That decline, he said, is manifested in perhaps seemingly-minor things like a trooper’s appearance and attention to detail in their uniform.
“Polish your shoes and your gear. Wear your tie in the winter. Clean your cruiser. Treat everyone with dignity and respect,” Mellekas said of the improvements he is trying to make.
In his memo and interview with CT Examiner, Mellekas also urged troopers to call out colleagues who are not performing as expected.
“We are human and we will make mistakes,” he wrote in the memo. “However, as we work together it strengthens us to police our own. We represent each other at all times on and off duty. The public does not know the differences in rank and assignment, only that you are a Connecticut State Trooper.”
Asked if he is concerned that public safety is being jeopardized by the situation, Mellekas said he is working to ensure it does not, as evidenced by the suspensions.
“Our people are making mistakes and we need to stay on top of it,” he said. “And we are staying on top of it.”