Possible trooper layoffs raise public safety questions

With the size of the state police force on the line as budget talks continue in Hartford, state and local officials are worried about what cuts could mean for response times and overtime pay.

According to state police union President Andy Matthews, five troopers and two state police sergeants already have received layoff notices, which will take effect June 26 if nothing changes before then.

In addition, Matthews said Connecticut at this point stands to lose a class of 79 troopers-to-be.

That’s because Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal and the state Senate Republicans’ budget proposal call for deferring a class of troopers — a measure that representatives on both sides say would save $3 million per fiscal year.

Members of the class, Matthews said, came from a large pool of applicants and had passed their medical clearance, the last step required to begin the police academy.

“The state just paid thousands to test thousands of applicants,” Matthews said, summarizing. “It came down to this final group who went through all the phases and were medically cleared to start the academy. And now all of that is wasted.”

Matthews said he fears fewer troopers will mean longer response times and more approved overtime pay.

For 14 years, state statute required the state police force to have at least 1,248 sworn staffers. In 2012, a year after Malloy’s election, that statute was eliminated in favor of one that requires the department’s commissioner to maintain a “sufficient” number of personnel.

Matthews said the state police force now has 1,030 sworn personnel. Almost 170 of them are eligible to retire and roughly another 70 will be eligible in January.

“With no class going into the academy to replace the people retiring ... we could be below 1,000 for the first time in decades,” he said. “It could be pretty detrimental to public and trooper safety in the field.”

The state's violent crime rate, despite an uptick in murders from 2014 to 2015, is at a more than 40-year low, according to the most recently available data.

Matthews acknowledged that, but said fewer troopers in the field finding and solving crime could account for some of the drop.

Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said the estimate of $3 million in savings might be “fuzzy math” that doesn’t account for a likely increase in overtime pay.

“State police have a lot of overtime now,” he said. “If the state reduces their numbers, the workload is still going to be there. It seems like the overtime would increase.”

Congdon pinned the state’s financial woes on a broken system in which public employees get retirement benefits that are almost unheard of for private employees — an issue Connecticut has “been aware of for 30 years and the legislature has not had courage to deal with.”

He stopped short of saying fewer troopers would have a noticeable impact on Preston, but pointed out that Troop E has to cover the town whenever its sole resident state trooper is not on the clock.

“There’s no easy solution,” Congdon said. “That’s the short of it. When you’re talking these kinds of deficits, it’s not pretty.”

In North Stonington, First Selectman Shawn Murphy expressed similar opinions.

“It does sound concerning to me,” Murphy said. “I feel the state troopers are top-heavy. To get rid of the low-level troopers is not the answer to reducing costs.”

His town has two resident state troopers. When those two are not working, North Stonington, too, is covered by a trooper from Troop E. Often that trooper is one who’s actively patrolling a route spanning Preston, North Stonington and part of Interstate 95.

Frequently, Murphy pointed out, the calls that troopers handle require two troopers to respond.

“They’ve made a decision to lay off troopers at a level that affects the people,” he said.

The Day reached out to Malloy’s communications team for a response. The team referred The Day to state Office of Policy and Management Public Information Officer Chris McClure.

Citing the “legal and very personal” layoff process, McClure said only that the office would “report on confirmed notices when the time is appropriate.”

As for state police, they’re still hoping something changes before June 26.

“We deeply regret the layoff of any state employee, but the impact of the loss of members of our sworn and civilian workforce is especially significant as their contributions to Connecticut’s safety are considerable,” state police said in a prepared statement. “We remain hopeful that layoffs can be avoided, and will continue to do all that we can to support our staff and provide outstanding law enforcement services to the residents of our state.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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