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To Protect And Serve: Test Cops Before It's Too Late

Helen Ubiñas
May 8, 2011

If the recent run of cops behaving badly has taught us anything, it's that there should be ongoing evaluations of police officers on the job.

Right now, some eagle-eyed police chiefs are opposing a bill that would inexplicably make it easier for cops to move from one department to another without drug screening, background checks or polygraphs. In short, tying police departments' hands at hiring the best candidates and allowing one agency's bad apple to become another's.

Thanks to vocal opposition, it looks as though the bill may not move forward — at least not as it stands.

So maybe we've ducked one problem. But why are we waiting for cops to switch departments before determining if they're still fit for the job?

Most of the officers who've gotten into high-profile trouble lately had been on the force for years, if not decades. Only one had switched departments. With two of the troubled officers working with their fathers, what incentive was there to move?

Until they got into trouble, the unfit officers were going about their jobs protected or undetected.

To recap, in the last couple of years we've had at least four high-profile cases where officers ran afoul of the law because of alcohol. One killed a 15-year-old. Another killed himself.

The head of the regional accident-reconstruction team called to the scene where the teen was killed reportedly arrived drunk and was sent home. He was later arrested for child porn.

In Meriden, an officer is a target of a joint federal and state investigation into allegations that a series of police brutality complaints against him were dismissed because his father is the police chief.

Bad apples aren't just trying to get on the force — some are already on it. And yet, there are no uniform, mandated mid-career screenings to weed them out. No periodic psychological exams. No occasional polygraphs or random drug tests. Not even mandatory fitness exams to at least ensure that a cop can still run after a perp if need be.

Once a cop is certified, it's pretty much a lifetime appointment.

But before I get accused of being anti-cop, this isn't just about weeding out bad officers. It's bigger than that. It's also about identifying cops under enormous daily stresses who may need help but not realize it, let alone ask for it, until it's too late.

By all reports, New Britain Police Captain Matthew Tuttle served the department honorably for 26 years before he was charged with drunken driving and evading responsibility after attending a party last Saturday with other officers. He lost control of his car and struck a disabled vehicle and its driver before fleeing the scene and driving home. Less than 12 hours later, he fatally shot himself in the head in his Middletown apartment.

While we're short on details about what led to Tuttle's suicide, it's hard not to wonder if there was some way to avoid such a tragedy. Could a drug test or psychological exam have tipped someone to signs that he was in trouble? Could something have been done to help him?

Ironically, some of the same police chiefs who oppose the bill that would remove testing to help ensure the best hires aren't as quick to support testing that might determine an officer's ongoing fitness for the job.

Police Chiefs James Strillacci, of West Hartford, and Anthony Salvatore, of Cromwell — co-chairs of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association legislative committee — said the idea is worth exploring. But, they added, there are already several mechanisms in place to evaluate officers. Among them, yearly performance evaluations, civilian review boards and internal affairs.

If a problem arises, they said, there are many ways to deal with it. OK. But that's a mighty big "if" — "if" the problem is detected, "if" it's not too late.

The chiefs also cautioned that there are several obstacles to such stringent testing — including contractual issues and cost. Who's going to pay for these mid-career evaluations, they asked? Will it be state mandated? Or will the testing be left to each town? And what if something comes up, they asked — then what?

All fair questions. As South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed succintly said: "It would be a challenge."

But given recent events, it seems a challenge worth taking on for the good of the officers and the public they serve.

Copyright © 2011, The Hartford Courant



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