Published March 13. 2014 4:00AM
An increasing number of legislators from eastern Connecticut are calling for the return of state police emergency dispatchers to their local barracks and the reopening of the barracks during the overnight hours.
Two proposed bills now call for suspension and reversal of the controversial statewide initiative to shrink through consolidation the number of state police dispatch centers from 12 to 5.
Proponents of the bills say there has been no cost savings, and the touted efficiencies of the program have not materialized and in fact have led to delayed police responses in some cases.
Dora A. Schriro, the new commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, has already announced a suspension of the program. With western and eastern portions of the plan already completed, the move has effectively halted the final portion of the plan aimed at consolidating dispatch centers from the central part of the state, which includes Troop F in Westbrook.
Troop E in Montville was among the eastern Connecticut state police barracks last year to move its dispatchers to a newly outfitted facility at Troop C in Tolland. The dispatch center in Tolland now handles calls from Troop C, Troop E, Troop K in Colchester and Troop D in Danielson.
In a statement released Tuesday, Schriro said the suspension of the program was pending completion of a thorough review of the statewide initiative. She said she planned to brief Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on her finding based on site visits, collection of data, interviews with staff and assessment of costs.
The suspension and evaluation of the consolidation is part of the request in Senate Bill 426, co-sponsored by state Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly. The bill sets a deadline of Jan. 15, 2015, for Schriro to submit a report to the General Assembly.
Both Flexer and state Sen. Donald Williams, speaking on behalf of the bill Tuesday, went further than the language in the bill by asking not only for suspension but reversal of the process - similar to a bill already proposed.
"We should instruct the department to restore local dispatch in those troops that serve areas where the majority of towns do not have local police departments, and by doing so restore 24-hour coverage to the barracks," Williams, D-Brooklyn, president pro tempore of the state Senate, said in a press statement.
The consolidation pulled dispatchers from behind their desks at the troops and freed up a trooper who had been stationed with the dispatcher. As a result, barracks are now usually closed during overnight hours while troopers are on the road, replaced instead by a telephone that connects visitors to the consolidated dispatch center in Tolland.
Williams said state troopers no longer take calls from the public and that "call-takers" now answer the phone, enter information into a database for another person to use when dispatching police. Prior to the consolidation, a state trooper and dispatcher would staff the call desk together, both with the authority to immediately dispatch a trooper.
"It is difficult to see how this multi-step process creates efficiency or quicker response time," Williams said. "New call-takers are not given the authority or the ability to dispatch a trooper and may not be familiar with local geographical locations."
He cited a home invasion in Windham in January where two kids locked themselves in a bathroom, called 911 and waited for an hour and a half for troopers to arrive. The delayed response was presumably due to confusion at the dispatch center of the location of the home.
"Not only has the consolidation increased wait times for non-emergency services such as fingerprinting, or the reporting of crimes and accidents, but it has dangerously increased the response times in case of emergency calls," Flexer said in a statement.
Andrew Matthews, president of the state police union, in written testimony submitted to the General Assembly's Public Safety and Security Committee on Tuesday, said response times are also affected by the amount of time troopers now spend with prisoner transports. Prior to consolidation, troopers could take a prisoner back to the barracks for processing and return to patrol. Because two troopers are needed at the barracks while a prisoner is in custody, the new system forces two troopers off the road, Matthews said. In the event prisoners are not released, the trooper must transport them to the nearest state prison.
The call for reversal of the consolidation was first brought to the legislature last month in Senate Bill 51, co-sponsored by state Sen. Cathy Osten and state Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester. That bill has already gained support from many local legislators, including state Rep. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston; state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; and state Sens. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford.
Osten said Wednesday she was not sure whether the two bills would be combined or revised, but she said the language is similar.
"Essentially, we're looking for the same thing," Osten said. "Sometimes there are myriad bills that come up on an issue in a variety of ways. The one Representative Orange and I proposed was to roll it back to a date prior to consolidation at Troop C. Yesterday's bill is similar, but slightly different."
"Consolidation or regionalization is under best practices supposed to minimize cost and still provide the same services - and that's not what has happened here," Osten said. "For me, it has not yet shown it's successful - and at the same time, (it was) poorly rolled out. Too much was done at the same time."