After the national reckoning of the George Floyd case and after the controversial police accountability law passed here in Connecticut, it's been reported many times that morale has been down among state troopers and the ranks are thinning.
There were also allegations that many were reluctant to conduct traffic stops on the interstate because they didn't feel supported in the state capitol.
However, there was a sign this week that things may be shifting in a more positive direction.
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with Executive Director of the Connecticut State Troopers Union Andy Matthews about it.
Get Connecticut local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Connecticut newsletters.
Mike Hydeck: So you're also a retired state trooper. This week, your union got to see state lawmakers literally overwhelmingly pass a wage and benefits package for troopers for the next four years. How did this new package land with veterans on the force? What do they think?
Andy Matthews: I appreciate the opportunity. Our troopers overwhelmingly supported the union leadership's efforts to enhance their benefits and wages, long overdue and well-deserved.
Mike Hydeck: How long was it? How long were troopers working without a contract? Was it an extended period of time, or was it a short period of time?
Face the Facts
Face the Facts with NBC Connecticut goes beyond the headlines, asking newsmakers the tough questions, giving an in-depth analysis of the big stories.
Andy Matthews: Our contract expired July 1 of 2022. So just a little bit more than almost seven months.
Mike Hydeck: One of the things that keeps being talked about in the state capitol and on the streets is force levels are desperately low. Where are they now? And as far as your membership is concerned, where should they be?
Andy Matthews: Yeah, so back in 2009, it's a great question, we had a strength of 1,283 troopers. We had a statutory mandate of, under 29-4, of 1,248 troopers. We're now under 900. We've lost over 400 troopers in the last four years.
Mike Hydeck: What would you say contributed to losing those troopers? Was it the pay? Was it social issues? All of the above? Something I'm not mentioning?
Andy Matthews: I think there were many different issues. The biggest was the SEBAC pension and healthcare changes that took effect July 1 of 2022. I think police accountability and just a general sense of anti-law enforcement throughout the country over the last few years really caused people to reconsider the profession. It's not just affecting retirements, it's affecting recruitment.
Mike Hydeck: So the most recent recruiting class that graduated seems to be on the small side. Can you compare that to years past?
Andy Matthews: Yeah, so typically, we appreciate Senator Osten and others on the Appropriations Committee, the Commissioner, the governor have have, for many years now have really pushed to fill and approve budget for classes of 100. And many, when I came on the job 25 years ago, you'd have like 15,000 to 16,000 applicants. We now have, like 1,000 applicants. And we usually budget for 80 to 100. And we have a class that graduates 70 to 80 people. We now have, we just started a class of 47. We're down to 36. And the last class only graduated 33. So it's difficult. It's not just here in Connecticut. It's around the country.
Mike Hydeck: One of the things that was in the news release regarding this new wage package is that it'll set it up with better paying local municipalities. Do you agree with that? So state troopers will be making at least as much if not more than if going to a local operation?
Andy Matthews: I would suggest to you that we're highest paid police officers in Connecticut with this agreement, and I think it will set the tone for a lot of the towns, municipalities to consider improving the wages and benefits they offer to their officers.
Mike Hydeck: So things could be getting better for police forces around the state this agreement, maybe being a high watermark or a benchmark, you think?
Andy Matthews: Yeah, I just think it would, it's time for communities and the elected leaders to really appreciate and consider not just the responsibilities, but the risks that law enforcement officers take and what they have to tolerate. And we all saw in Bristol, the tragic loss of two officers. I mean, the mayor there was very instrumental in taking care of the families. It's time to, to really appreciate and show that they support and respect law enforcement and pay them what they're deserving of.
Mike Hydeck: And maybe we can look back and say the pendulum might have swung too far in one direction. When the police accountability law was passed, it made it more possible for civilians to sue officers for conduct on the job. Now some lawmakers say they want to talk about modifying the police accountability law. Will the union be in on that conversation moving forward?
Andy Matthews: We'd love the invitation to be part of it. We would testify to help show that the legislature maybe overreached a little bit, overreacted somewhat and exposed law enforcement officers and communities to potentially more civil liability.
Mike Hydeck: Last question, is there a way, if certain people in the public maybe have an opposing view, is there a way to balance the need to improve public trust, which is continuing now, and then have some legal protection for men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect us? Is there a middle ground that can be reached, do you think?
Andy Matthews: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think it's really, we could take an hour to talk about that. But I think the public does need to see that law enforcement officers that overreach and act outside the color of law and abuse, their authority, are held accountable swiftly. But I also think that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement throughout the country, comes on the job because it's their calling, and they want to protect the public. That's what they live for. And to subject them to more criticism and potential liability and financial loss and potential, you know, civil litigation in State Superior Court, which is what the police accountability bill did here in Connecticut, it's more of a burden on the communities, the police departments. And it's a bigger process, because now you have to go to a trial, you have to go through depositions. You don't let a judge decide anymore. It's a jury. And police officers just feel harassed to some degree and the lack of support because the politicians and the appointed elected leaders within agencies are more concerned about their future, and worrying about what the politicians think rather than what the men and women that put their lives on the line every day on the streets are considering. And in the past, we used to have a lot of support. But I don't think they feel as supported as they once did. But this is a step in the right direction.