Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media
Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner designee James Rovella (Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media)

HARTFORD, CT — Already facing depleted ranks, state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner designee James Rovella told legislators Thursday that nearly half of the 915 state troopers currently on the job will be eligible to retire by 2023.

“Realistically we are having trouble retaining and recruiting troopers,” Rovella told members of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee during a public hearing.

Of the 915 sworn troopers including sergeants and command staff, an average of 60 are either out on workers compensation, illness, or for other issues, or they are on light duty at any given time, Rovella said.

He conceded that the 45 recruits currently in the police academy will not even come close to making up the shortfall in the number of troopers who are out or who are likely to retire by July.

The agency budgets for 65 troopers to retire annually, but realistically the number of retirements range between 70 to 80 a year, Rovella said. DESPP has been making up the shortfall with overtime, he said, which requires a balancing act that takes into account the amount it would cost to hire new troopers with benefits.

The “915 sworn personnel is certainly not enough,” Rovella said. “When we look at attrition numbers, we’re down by almost 300 officers.”

The state police is one of six divisions within DESPP, now headed by Rovella who is expected to formally be confirmed as the agency’s commissioner in the new few weeks.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 5279: An Act Concerning The Number Of Sworn State Police Officers

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Rovella testified before the committee against HB 5279, a bill proposed by committee member Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester, that would have again set the minimum number of sworn state troopers to 1,248.

Orange’s proposal would have put the number of troopers required back to the level it was in 2001 under a previous law that was eliminated in 2012 by former Gov. Dannel Malloy. The mandate was a response to the murder of Heather Messenger.

“Maintaining adequate trooper staffing is one of my top priorities in the department,” Rovella said in his written testimony submitted to the committee. “With that said, I do not believe legislation is necessary to define a minimum number of sworn state police personnel. Having flexibility with staffing levels ensures the agency is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. We currently have a trooper class scheduled to graduate in May and I am working with the Office of Policy and Management to secure future classes.”

The state police have an active candidate list of 83, but none have taken the entry-level test or gone through background checks, Rovella said. “We expect to offer a test soon,” he said.

But not soon enough, according to Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague. “We are close to almost a crisis level,” Osten said.

Rovella countered with the agency “was managing the troops” by balancing shortages with overtime.

“We need to start to filling positions,” Osten said. “If you don’t get a class in the academy right away, it will take at least nine months after you get people hired to get them on the street.”

In recent weeks DESPP has confirmed that the agency has an 18-month to two-year backlog in filling Freedom of Information requests, which was created by staffing shortages. Rovella also said that when he took over as commissioner of the agency about five weeks ago, he immediately noticed that the agency was facing a huge backlog of paperwork related to gun sales. Specifically, the documentation for about 18,000 guns needed to be entered into the state’s system for tracking gun sales. The backlog had been reduced to 5,000 gun sales three weeks after Rovella instructed staff to put more people on the problem.

After his testimony Thursday, Rovella said that the state needed a “robust” recruiting effort, “which is a challenge nationwide.”

The police academy that is operated by the state Police Officer Training and Standards Council can train 100 recruits at a time — but there are other options, Rovella said. “We have to get background checks done in a timely manner,” he said. “We are looking at other places for them to train for six months.”

He declined to comment on alternatives to the academy, but said, “I’ll work with whatever the OPM gives me. I’ll work with the cards I’m dealt.”

Rovella also testified that it was likely that the study of how to detect whether drivers are impaired by marijuana proposed by Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, HB 5152, was unnecessary. If the legalization of marijuana passes during this legislative session, he was hoping to have at least 50 percent of troopers certified as Drug Recognition Experts through a two-week intensive course, which would also require more funding.

The certification includes methods of detecting drivers who may be driving impaired after marijuana use.

A dozen troopers already have the certification, but if the legislature decides to legalize marijuana, “I’ll need prep time and resources,” Rovella said.