For 25 years, the state of Connecticut did not require a minimum number of state troopers.
But that changed when on Jan. 3, 1998, Chaplin resident Heather Messenger was murdered by her husband.
Messenger had barricaded herself in her bedroom and called 911. State Police Troop D in Danielson had four troopers on patrol that night and one on desk duty. The troopers, who were scattered around their 300-square-mile coverage area, took 20 minutes to respond.
By that time, Messenger, who was pregnant, had been murdered.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, invoked the incident during his testimony Tuesday at a Public Safety and Security Committee hearing over a bill proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to eliminate a statutory requirement that the state maintain a staff of at least 1,248 state troopers. The governor’s proposal replaces the mandate with a bi-annual staffing assessment by the commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
McKinney said an enforced minimum staffing level decreases the chances of more murders in the less populous areas of the state that rely on the state police.
“It wasn’t the fault of the state police officers,” McKinney said. “The fact is that on that night, Troop D in Danielson had only four patrol cars on duty.”
Asked if the legislature should implement minimum staffing levels for correction officers and other public employees, McKinney said that police are different.
Public safety is a government’s primary duty to it’s citizens, McKinney said. It’s not a static number, it’s a minimum number.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said that the minimum staffing number is not nearly as important as ensuring that new classes of troopers are trained and quickly deployed. The current process, he said, could take up to 18 months from start to finish.
“I suggest we put our money where our mouth is and put in additional trooper classes,” Dargan said.
Dargan and his co-chair, Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, agreed that moving up an evaluation of state police staffing might be beneficial.
Connecticut State Police Union President Sgt. Andrew Matthews said that it is unfair for the legislature to make a decision about state police staffing levels without first conducting a study.
“This committee is being asked to make a decision . . . without an adequate study,” Matthews said. “Why wait until 2014 to get a report? Why don’t we do a study now?”
Dargan said that the minimum should be eliminated until then, but Hartley, who engaged in a lengthy discussion of the fluctuations in state trooper staffing levels with Matthews, said the committee needed time for consideration before taking action.
“We all just need to come together to find common ground,” Hartley said.
Col. Daniel Stebbins, who spoke on behalf of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Safety, said that personnel issues should not be tied to an unenforceable number because of fluctuations including “potential acts of terrorism, emergency management, rapid business growths and sudden and unexpected growths in gang violence.”
All these factors, Stebbins said, influence how many troopers are needed and how many qualified people apply to the state police academy.
But McKinney said that the reasons Stebbins listed sounded more like incentives to maintain the minimum requirement.
“Personnel staffing is and must remain a fluid matter,” Stebbins said. “Our agency goal, regardless of the fiscal climate, will always be to have adequate staffing in place to protect public safety and to protect our employees.”
The Office of Fiscal Analysis found that if the state hires the 168 troopers needed to meet the minimum requirement it will cost $2 million, but it will save about $5.8 million in overtime. Currently, there are 1,080 sworn officers on the force.
McKinney said it was “ironic” that the Public Safety Committee was discussing cutting minimum trooper requirements while hearings about keeping liquor stores open longer were happening in the same building.
Since it was established in 1998, the requirement hasn’t been met – the closest the state came to filling it was in 2009, when 1,243 troopers were employed, Matthews said.
According to the nonpartisan office, the 1,248 minimum was met only once in fiscal year 2002.
A Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled in January that the Malloy administration should be enforcing the statute.