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Amid Ticketing Scandal, Connecticut Police Face Crisis of Trust

The results of an audit found a “high likelihood” that hundreds of state troopers falsified tens of thousands of traffic tickets and skewed racial profiling data. Now the department is working to restore public trust and legitimacy.

The Connecticut State Police are mired in turmoil in the wake of an audit released over the summer that found a "high likelihood" hundreds of troopers collectively falsified tens of thousands traffic ticket records over much of the past decade, skewing racial profiling data.

The top two officials overseeing the state's largest law enforcement agency are stepping down, while state lawmakers outraged by the scandal eye new accountability reforms.

Fallout has extended beyond state police, creating headaches for both Governor Ned Lamont and the state's top prosecutor. In courts, attorneys have sought to use the audit's findings to help defend clients facing criminal charges investigated by troopers.

Now there are the multiple ongoing federal and state investigations looking at whether troopers intentionally falsified tickets — and whether they broke any laws. Officials are expected to release an initial update from one of those probes soon, Lamont said this week.

Experts say the findings from each investigation will be critical to understanding the true extent of the ticketing scandal. But whatever investigators find, the department has a long road ahead to restore public trust and legitimacy.

"This ticket scandal has wrecked both of those," said Lorenzo M. Boyd, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who has trained police departments across the country. "So now we need to get back to that."

State public safety officials did not respond to those criticisms.

The Audit

An investigation by CT Insider in August 2022 found the state police had sustained allegations against four troopers for falsifying hundreds of traffic tickets in order to appear more productive and to gain favor and perks from supervisors.

In 2018, those troopers entered fake traffic infractions into a system used to monitor troopers' productivity and to identify potential racial profiling, but they never sent the tickets to the Judiciary Branch. (The racial profiling system doesn't ask for a driver's name, license plate number or ID number, so officials say no drivers received fake tickets as a result of the scheme.)

After the CT Insider story published, the department faced criticism for keeping the findings in-house and because the troopers avoided serious consequences.

The state-funded group at UConn that manages the racial profiling data initiated an audit of all state police stops. To do so, the group looked for tickets that appeared in the racial profiling database but not the Judiciary database.

Their final audit, released in late June, found between 130 and 311 state troopers may have entered between 25,966 and 58,553 false or inaccurate traffic citations from 2014 to 2021 — that is, tickets that appeared in the racial profiling database but did not appear in the Judiciary database.

The audit also found between 192 and 542 troopers failed to report some 16,298 traffic tickets to the racial profiling database, only sending them to the Judiciary.

The effect of both "overreported" tickets and "underreported" tickets skewed the state's racial profiling data, making it appear troopers stopped more white drivers and fewer drivers of color than they actually did.

Those findings seemed to undermine assurance in 2022 from Colonel Stavros Mellekas that the problem of false tickets was isolated and had not affected the racial profiling database.

Auditors didn't try to determine whether the discrepancies were intentional or what may have motivated them.

After the audit came out, an investigation by CT Insider found that 27 state police supervisors and union leaders were flagged by a recent audit for "significant discrepancies."

The Aftermath

At an hours-long public meeting lawmakers called to discuss the audit findings in July, state police officials said they did not dispute the audit's methodology and had already implemented some of the audit's recommendations.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut State Police union disputed the audit's methodology and called its findings into question both during the hearing and at a press conference at the state capitol in August.

The union also sued to keep state officials from releasing the names of troopers flagged by the audit. A judge dismissed the case, but the issue is still pending before the state Freedom of Information Commission. (CT Insider has appealed its own public records requests for the names to the commission.)

The union did not respond to a request for comment.

When state police officials took a closer look at ticketing issues following the audit's release, they discovered a trooper, who was not flagged by the audit, had been allegedly falsifying the racial profiling data on traffic stops he made and suspended him.

Controversy has also swirled around the state police's policy of deleting cruiser GPS data — information that could have helped in the ticket investigations.

At least one defense attorney has already raised the audit in court, filing a motion to know whether any of the state police detectives involved in the murder case against his client were flagged by the audit. If troopers are found to have intentionally falsified records, it could have a broad impact on any unrelated criminal cases they were involved in, according to experts.

Now, Mellekas has retired and Commissioner James Rovella of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection is set to step down soon.

Rovella joined Gov. Ned Lamont in early October to announce his retirement and name his replacement, Ronnell Higgins, associate vice president for public safety and community engagement at Yale.

Mellekas retired from the state police this week. Lt. Col. Daniel Loughman, a nearly 18-year veteran of the force, will serve as interim commanding officer, the agency announced Wednesday.

The Connecticut State Police Union had voted no confidence in both Rovella and Mellekas in August, in part for what it said was their failure to defend rank-and-file troopers from the ticketing allegations. A much smaller union for state police supervisors had voted no confidence in Rovella in July, but it spared Mellekas.

Meanwhile, there are at least four ongoing investigations into the ticket scandal — an internal investigation by the state police, a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation and an independent inquiry by former U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly.

Lamont initially tapped Chief State's Attorney Patrick J. Griffin to investigate the audit's findings. But questions arose about whether Griffin's office, which works closely with the state police, could act independently.

The Department of Justice took over the criminal investigation from Griffin's office soon after to prevent "unnecessary duplication of efforts," Griffin said.

Lamont appointed Daly to do a separate probe; that choice has also raised concerns because Daly has represented his the governor's wife's businesses in the past.

Lamont said last month he expects Daly's investigation to wrap up by the end of the year.

Daly did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Connecticut declined to comment.

The State Police Investigation

Meanwhile, an internal investigation by the state police continues to look at 130 troopers the audit found had the most significant discrepancies in their ticket writing. State police investigators are working closely with officials at the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, which authored the audit.

Officials now believe that 25 of those 130 troopers do not meet the most stringent threshold set by the audit because of technical problems with their badge numbers that were only identified after the audit came out, according to Ken Barone, who manages the project.

As of late October, the state police had also reviewed data for another 35 troopers whose discrepancies may have been due to inappropriate or incorrect ticketing practices or technical and administrative errors, rather than intentionally falsifying tickets, according to Barone.

The project has not agreed to "clear" any of those 35 troopers because it is still waiting for the state police to answer its questions about many of them. Some of the 35 merit further investigation, Barone said.

The State Police expect to update lawmakers on the progress of that investigation soon, Lamont's office said.

A spokesperson for Lamont declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigations.

State police spokesperson Sgt. Christine Jeltema said Wednesday that her office has not received any updates on the internal investigation.

The scale of the audit's findings make it likely there was at least some wrongdoing, state Sen. Garry Winfield Winfield said.

Still, Winfield said he is reserving judgment on where things stand until the investigations play out.

"I'm not sure we can say with 100 percent certainty where we are," he said of the ongoing investigations.

"The question is, what's the apparent severity here," he added.

The Way Forward

In many ways, experts said, the crisis is a microcosm of challenges that face police departments across the country as departments that were largely taken at their word for decades face calls for openness and accountability after the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 set off a national movement.

Connecticut lawmakers responded to that movement by passing a police accountability law in 2020 that set new requirements on agencies across the state, especially the state police.

The state police will likely be "a hot topic" at next year's legislative session, according to lawmakers, but the details of any legislation will depend on what the investigations find.

"These events would have been unthinkable 20 years ago — that this type of independent oversight, independent scrutiny, would be a reality for them," said Michael Lawlor, a former state representative who sits on the Police Officer Standards and Training Council. "But it is."

"This is a big cultural change for them," Lawlor added. "And that's difficult for people."

Police departments often fumble because the easiest things for supervisors to measure — traffic tickets, arrests, calls for service — don't necessarily have the biggest impact on an agency's core goals, according to Eric Dlugolenski, a former sergeant in the West Haven Police Department who now teaches criminology at Central Connecticut State University.

Moving forward, Dlugolenski said, state police leaders will need to make sure troopers can focus on those goals, including public safety and community trust.

"This is a significant challenge," he said. "But it also provides them with an opportunity to engage in some introspection and reform."

(c)2023 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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