Seeking a compromise on a contentious issue, a key legislative committee voted narrowly Tuesday to overturn a 13-year-old state law and ask for a non-partisan study of state police trooper staffing.
The issue arose because Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking the legislature to eliminate the state’s law that mandates a minimum of 1,248 state troopers. The law was signed by Republican John G. Rowland in 1998, and legislators have repeatedly debated for years about the funding that would allow the state police to hire at least 1,248 troopers. Today, the state has 1,080 troopers.
Facing a committee deadline this week, the legislature’s public safety committee voted Tuesday on a plan for a study by the legislature’s bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee during the next legislative session.
The final vote tally was 13 to 10 on mostly party lines with two members absent on Senate Bill 32.
Malloy, in an attempt to balance the state’s projected $20.7 billion annual budget in the fiscal year that starts July 1, is seeking to eliminate the 1,248 number from state law. The state troopers’ union is fighting back and has filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court in Hartford.
That suit originally began as an attempt to reinstate 56 troopers whom Malloy had laid off. The troopers have since been rehired, and Judge James T. Graham ruled that the 1,248 minimum was a mandatory number that should be enforced, rather than an advisory guideline. The Malloy administration is appealing Graham’s ruling in order to have the 1,248 minimum stricken from the state law books.
Malloy has argued that 1,248 is an arbitrary number and that state officials should be able to decide the necessary staffing levels rather than being required to follow a specific number in state law.
“Our agency goal, regardless of the fiscal climate, will always be to have adequate staffing in place to protect the public safety and to ensure the safety of our department employees,” Col. Danny R. Stebbins said in recent written testimony to the public safety committee. “In order to accomplish this aim, certain staffing levels must be maintained, but that staffing is not, and cannot, be tied to a preset, static number as the current law calls for.”
State Rep. Daniel Rovero of Killingly told fellow committee members Tuesday that it doesn’t make sense to be asking the police to be doing more work at the same time that the Malloy administration wants to eliminate the minimum staffing mandate.
“We should get the state police back on the road,” said Rovero, a House Democrat.
Sen. Joan Hartley, a Waterbury Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said, “I don’t know what the number will end up being. … Truth be known, I don’t know what the right number is. I don’t know how technology has affected that.”
In response to a question, Hartley said she could not say which agencies had signed off on the proposed study. The study would be done with input from the governor’s office, the state police union, and the Office of Policy and Management, among others.
State Rep. Steven Mikutel, a Griswold Democrat who is one of the longest-serving House members, said, “This needs to be a data-driven solution. I was not very comfortable with the 1,248. I thought it was an arbitrary number. … We don’t have that for any other state department.”
He added, “The number of 1,248 really is not a magic number. … The number needs to be defined better through an impartial study.”
State Rep. Stephen Dargan, the committee co-chairman, said, ”There was one time under Governor Rell in which we were over 1,248. Since that time, we have not been over that number.”
Regarding the vote on the substitute language on Senate Bill 32, Dargan said, “It was originally 19 to 4 with two absent. … Then Republicans switched. I think the only Democrat who voted against it was Linda Orange. … Before we recessed, all the Republicans switched. The bottom line is a win is a win, whether it’s one basket or one shot or 4 to 3 in a baseball game.”
State Rep. Linda Orange, a Democrat, said during the meeting that the state “should have had the foresight” to do the study years ago.
“Doing it now is better than never,” Orange told committee members.
Orange, who often votes the same way as Dargan on committee issues, said she opposes the bill because it strips out the current minimum in the law.
“It’s always been in statute. I don’t agree to take it out of statute,” Orange said. “I think the study is overdue. To take something out of statute just because we’re not meeting it … I can’t vote for the bill.”
The number of 1,248 should remain in the law while the study is being done, Orange said.
“It was a bit of an arbitrary number,” Hartley responded to Orange.
State Rep. Al Adinolfi, a Cheshire Republican who voted for the bill, said he agreed with Orange, adding, “Now, we’re in limbo until this study is done. At least we had something in place, and now we don’t.”
During the past 50 years, the state police have had various minimum staffing levels. Based on detailed history that was investigated by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research, the minimum trooper level in 1961 went from 450 to 500. In 1965, the level was boosted from 500 to 590. In 1967, it went from 590 to 665 before increasing from 665 to 765 in 1969.
In 1973, the number was removed from the statute and replaced with “the amount that was needed to sustain the department,” said state Rep. Stephen Dargan, the longtime public safety committee co-chairman.
The creation of the 1,248 minimum in 1998 was related directly to the death of Heather Messenger and the lengthy response time to her emergency call from Chaplin. When police finally arrived, Messenger had been killed by her husband, David. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has been in custody ever since.
In the 13 years since the 1,248 minimum was established, the legislature has provided funding to meet the level in only three of those years, said Andrew McDonald, Malloy’s legal counsel.
Sen. Tony Guglielmo, a Stafford Springs Republican, noted that the law started with the Messenger death in Chaplin, which is part of his Senate district. The trooper arrived about 20 to 24 minutes later after a 911 call from Heather Messenger, who was killed by her husband. He is still in custody in a mental health institution.
“It was no fault of the trooper’s. It was at the end of his coverage area,” said Guglielmo, the ranking Senate Republican on the public safety committee who voted against the bill. “By the time the trooper got there, she was dead. ”
He added, “I’m certainly for the 1,248. … One of the statements used for lowering the level was ‘crime is down.’ I would use that statement for keeping it where it is. … New York has a small army of police. I think it’s up over 40,000. … I’ve been to Broadway lately, and there are cops everywhere. They’ve been pretty well coached as to what their duties are. I’m still solid on the staffing level at 1,248. The state police union is just asking for a non-biased study.”
He added, “I wanted to flag it. … We can’t wait too long. Everybody is going to want to move on this.”
“Staffing levels is the kind of thing you want to keep close to the vest,” Guglielmo said. “You don’t want to say how many troopers are on duty in Litchfield County. They’re not anxious to do it in the open hearings. You don’t want people who break into houses for a living to know where to go.”
In other matters, the committee discussed Senate Bill 326 on whether to legalize and regulate the sport of mixed martial arts in Connecticut.
“It has been alleged that this is a rather brutal sport, and quite frankly, an unsafe sport,” Mikutel said. “Does it allow choke holds? … Does it allow one to kick his opponent while he is on the ground?”
Hartley responded, “It exists in all but four states in the United States. … It is an industry that is asking only to be regulated.”