AP NEWS

Lamont sends backup as CT state troopers reach near ‘crisis situation’

February 21, 2019

Nearly every state police unit has been affected by a critical staffing shortage that has caused the crime lab to have a backlog of 3,000 cases for DNA analysis.

In his budget address this week, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed spending $1.25 million to recruit and train 100 state troopers. He hopes the plan will get 80 to 90 troopers on the road in 2020.

“There’s 100 in there,” DESPP Commissioner designee James Rovella said Thursday. “It will barely keep up with attrition for the year. We had 80-and-change retire this year. So if I’m lucky, this will keep my head above water.”

It’s money that will stay in the budget if state Appropriations Committee co-chairwoman Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Columbia, has any say about it.

“It’s not enough from my perspective, but it has to stay in,” Osten said Thursday. “We’re getting almost to a crisis situation in the number of troopers we have on the road. I’ve been worried about this since last year.”

The Appropriations Committee will hold public hearings and discuss with legislators before presenting its own budget. Osten contends if the money Lamont proposed for trooper training doesn’t stay intact, the state could face a law enforcement crisis.

“We need this just to keep the number of troopers at the current level,” she said.

State troopers have retired at a rate of 60 to 80 per year, creating a staffing shortage that could lead to only 800 sworn personnel by 2023. That’s when 55 percent of the force would be eligible to retire if no one else is hired, Rovella said in a letter sent with the report to the state’s Public Safety and Protection and Appropriations Committee co-chairs on Jan. 31.

The state police have 1,201 allocated positions — but 236 are not funded. If the state doesn’t quickly move to provide some funding, he said the numbers paint a “dire picture” for years to come.

The shortage is not only impacting road operations, but also specialized units, Rovella said. He hasn’t pulled people from the specialized units. “I can see they are all already depleted,” he said. But the reduced ranks are leaving shortages in the number of people dealing with cyber crimes, violent crimes, drug task forces, human trafficking and other statutory functions, the report said.

More than 5,000 sex offender registry violations involving more than 2,000 offenders are waiting to be processed and the Deadly Weapon Offender Registry has 780 open cases that require investigative reports, the staffing study concluded. The registry tracks offenders who have been convicted of crimes with deadly weapons or who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity of a crime involving a deadly weapon.

There’s a 13,766 backlog in processing background checks with the State Police Bureau of Identification and Records Unit, causing up to a three-month delay for people waiting for clearance for jobs, and a backlog of 529 Freedom of Information requests, which at one point translated into a two-year wait for the public to receive documents or information.

Rovella has reduced the backlog of nearly 18,000 firearm sale transaction paperwork that had not been entered into the system by the Special Licensing and Firearms Unit. There is also a 17-month wait for reports and records requested by the public, the report said.

There’s also a shortage in civilian staff, which ordinarily would be used to backfill some of the tasks that troopers perform, Rovella said.

The Division of Scientific Services, which falls under DESPP and includes the state crime lab, has a backlog of 3,197 case requests for DNA, many of which involve violent crimes. That backlog is related to a 5 percent increase in submissions and the inability to address staffing shortages due to budget constraints, according to the report.

The backlog doesn’t take into account the “inventory” of cold case evidence that must be re-tested as DNA techniques improve, Rovella said. He’s hoping to hire some “critical” employees at the lab to reduce the backlog this year.

The lab was previously backlogged in 2011, causing the agency to temporarily lose national accreditation.

He’s otherwise had to make some tough choices to fund DESPP positions.

“I wasn’t happy about giving up $1 million for cars, but I would be less happy about giving up $1 million for personnel,” he said. “I had to maintain staffing levels.”

Staffing at each of the 11 state police troops is down by at least 12 percent, with Troop E in Montville down by 24 percent. Troop H in Hartford is down by 22 percent and Troop B in North Canaan is down 27 percent, the report said.

There has been a 16 percent reduction in staff for the major crime units, which investigate serious crimes within towns whose only law enforcement are state troopers, a variety of other serious crimes at the request of municipal authorities, and all fatal police-involved shootings.

To maintain coverage on the roads, troopers made $16.5 million in overtime in 2018 — about $5 million more than in 2017 — to cover some of the shortages, the report said.

State police had 1,074 sworn troopers in January 2017, Rovella said in the letter to committee chairs. By January 2019, the number was down 14 percent with an average of 60 out sick, injured, or out for other reasons, including disciplinary actions, Rovella said.

With another 29 troopers expected to retire by July, the current class of 45 recruits who won’t the hit the road on their own for at least another five months, will barely cover the existing shortfall, Osten said.

The current list of 83 candidates expired on Dec. 31, but can be extended, Osten said. She agreed that some of the candidates likely took other positions or have moved out of state while waiting for the list to move to the next phases of hiring, including background checks, polygraphs and psychological testing.

“We’re tipping on the level of unmanageable,” Osten said “We need to move this forward. All that (the $1.25 million) does is keep us from going into crisis mode, I would not be willing to take that out.”

Lisa Backus is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at lbackus102@aol.com.