TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

If you Google “Connecticut State Police,” you’ll find plenty of stories of quick thinking, heroism, human tragedy, and timely warnings against consumer fraud. And, as is the case with most police departments, you’ll also find the ugly: misconduct; use of excessive force; and assorted improprieties too numerous to mention here.

Most of the latter result in unjustifiable harm to the people the police are supposed to be protecting. But sometimes, these transgressive behaviors harm mostly the police themselves. Such is the case with a string of misdeeds that came to light last month at Troop E in Montville.

Hearst Connecticut newspapers reported that during a nine-month period in 2019, four troopers issued a total of 636 fake traffic citations – not the kind that result in fines to licensed drivers for imaginary offenses, but counterfeit tickets issued to people who evidently don’t even exist. In any case, fraudulent data were then entered into state computers.

My first reaction when I saw the headline was: why would the cops engage in such chicanery? After all, any fines collected go to the state, not to individual troopers. But reporter Bill Cummings revealed that internal affairs investigators interviewed one of the troopers involved, Timothy Bentley, who told them the fake tickets came from creating what he called “ghost stops,” which, Cummings explained, “increase his statistics and appear as if he was being a productive trooper, while in fact he was not doing much work at all.” Oddly, Bentley later denied having said that.

Unbeknownst to me (a mere writer), one measure for evaluating the productivity of rank-and-file troopers in Connecticut is to count the number of tickets they issue in a given period of time. Though troopers enjoy a great many job protections through their union contracts, their bosses still have wide latitude in determining the career advancement of subordinates.

Positive reviews can result not only in promotions and pay increases, but in being given specialty vehicles to drive (such as unmarked Dodge Chargers), better assignments, and avoiding transfers to less-desirable locations. I happen to live in one of those locations. I’m told by police families that Troop B has been branded “Siberia” by troopers who often view reassignment to Connecticut’s remote Northwest Corner as punishment.

It appears that for that abuse of public trust, the troopers who falsified reports received punishments most of us would consider a slap on the wrist. Two of the troopers, including Bentley, who issued 338 fake tickets, were allowed to quietly retire with their discipline held in abeyance. Two others received a 10-day suspension and two-day suspension, respectively.

Col. Stavros Mellekas, who heads the State Police division of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, told Hearst the troopers’ actions were “disappointing.” Most of the rest of us who inhabit the non-police world would call it “outrageous.”

In a follow-up explainer, Cummings elaborated on the internal investigation and interviewed criminal justice experts on the report’s findings. While Mellekas characterized the issuance of the fake tickets as merely “violations of rules and regulations,” others were unconvinced.

Michael Lawlor, an expert on criminal justice reform who also is a former prosecutor and state representative, told Hearst he thought the actions of the troopers, as described in the internal affairs documents, amounted to felonious behavior, such as forgery and making false statements.

“It’s a crime to do that,” said Lawlor, who now teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “Allegations like this seriously undermine confidence in the law enforcement system.”

Shamus Smith, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, and a former cop himself, had a similar take: “You are forging a legal document. The officers are not going to see it that way, but it’s a cause for serious action.”

One of the other problems here is the State Police are offering perverse incentives for positive reviews. If issuing tickets helps with career advancement, crooked cops will invariably game the system.

I saw the same temptations when I was in private education. No teacher should be punished for being assigned a class full of underachievers, but teachers whose students scored higher on standardized tests were often regarded more favorably by administrators.

Indeed, entire schools are often judged by the same metric. Often out of desperation, some schools cook the books, most famously in Atlanta nine years ago when a superintendent was indicted for using test scores to punish and reward teachers, some of whom were later convicted of cheating on standardized tests, though their guilty findings were highly disputed by legal observers.

Sometimes these incentives don’t lead to wrongdoing but are simply unfair. When I was in private-school fundraising, team members in the development office were assigned to cultivate and solicit various classes of donors for a capital campaign. Some staffers would be assigned to the board of trustees, some to alumni, and still others to current parents. Should a development officer with the easy job of soliciting wealthy and motivated board members be judged by the same metric as an officer asking parents, who were already paying a $50,000 tuition, to make a financial commitment for a new gym? Fortunately, our head of school did not.

Isn’t it fair not to ask the same of police officers? Should a trooper who patrols in an area with more than its share of speeders – Troop E includes Connecticut’s two Indian casinos – be judged by the same standards as a trooper in Litchfield County, which is disproportionately comprised of older drivers who are less inclined to zip around like Mario Andretti?

The troopers who filed the phony tickets should be punished appropriately – and perhaps even prosecuted – but the system clearly needs to be reformed and any perverse incentives removed. The state’s top cop needs to do everything he can to assure the public that his troopers are acting in good faith. Otherwise, the citizens they protect will wonder what else the cops are faking.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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