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GPS Could Help Unravel Connecticut’s False Ticket Scandal

Experts say investigators probing the Connecticut State Police traffic ticket scandal should use data from GPS systems in department cruisers to help determine if thousands of suspected tickets were fraudulent.

(TNS) — Experts say investigators probing the Connecticut State Police traffic ticket scandal should use data from GPS systems in department cruisers to help determine if thousands of suspected tickets were fraudulent.

The GPS data can verify whether a trooper's vehicle was at the location they listed on a ticket when the infraction was issued — offering a telling indicator of whether the trooper inputted false information on the citation.

If tickets are found to be falsified, GPS data could also point investigators toward the motivation for doing so. Other police departments with false ticketing scandals have used GPS data to uncover troopers' cruisers were parked at their homes at times they claimed to be patrolling highways and writing tickets.

"There is no reason the state police could not pull the data to see where the officers were when they wrote some of these tickets," said Matthew Ross, an associate professor at Northeastern University who co-authored a recent audit with the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project which found a "high likelihood" that hundreds of troopers falsified thousands of tickets.

That audit did not attempt to ascertain intent. Determining the accuracy of the audit's findings — whether flagged tickets were intentionally faked or created by error — is central to multiple ongoing investigations, including to assess whether criminal charges for fraud or other offenses are warranted.

Other departments have used GPS systems, often called Automated Vehicle Locators (AVL), or other cruiser location tracking technology to determine if officers were writing fake tickets.

In August, news surfaced that a Hartford officer resigned after internal investigators determined he falsified records for about 200 traffic stops. Investigators used GPS data from his patrol car to show he was not at some of the locations where he claimed to have written tickets.

In February 2022, a Norwalk officer was arrested and charged with multiple felonies after investigators found he had created more than 30 fake traffic tickets over a four-month span. A warrant for his arrest said in some cases, the officer's vehicle locator showed he was not at the location of the supposed traffic incidents at the times indicated on his reports. His court case remains pending.

In a series of investigations beginning in 2018, the Massachusetts State Police discovered many troopers had for years been writing fake tickets to make it appear they were working when they actually weren't, according to The Boston Globe.

Massachusetts troopers collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay despite skipping shifts — including federally-funded overtime assignments — in which they were supposed to have been stopping dangerous drivers, authorities said. Location data from cruiser radio systems was a critical tool for investigators to show troopers faked tickets and skipped work. As a key reform in the wake of that scandal, the department installed more advanced AVL systems in cruisers.

Brenda Bond, a public service professor with the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University who studies the performance of police organizations and followed the Massachusetts scandal closely, said she expects officials investigating the problems in Connecticut will turn to AVL data.

"Police are increasingly using technology to track and monitor police activity, so I can imagine AVL will be one of those tools," Bond said.

Connecticut State Police and other agencies have used other tools, such as body and dash camera footage, to investigate officer ticket falsification allegations to investigate whether an officer was present when a ticket was written.

State police, which is conducting one of the ongoing probes into the audit's findings, declined to comment about whether they will review GPS data for their investigation.

Federal authorities, who recently took over a criminal investigation initially launched by the Chief State's Attorney Patrick Griffin, declined to comment as did Griffin's office.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ned Lamont, who appointed former U.S. attorney Deirdre Daly to conduct a separate probe into the scandal, said "the Governor's Office is leaving the methods and technology used in the investigations to the agencies and teams conducting the investigations."

State police union officials have pushed back on the audit's findings, saying many of the alleged false tickets could be due to innocent mistakes — a lack of training for troopers, human error or technology problems, for example. The union did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The racial profiling project's audit, which was released in June, found between 130 troopers and 311 troopers entered between 25,966 and 58,553 false or inaccurate traffic tickets into a state police database supervisors use to monitor ticket writing from 2014 through 2021.

That database is also used to monitor police stops for potential racial profiling. Auditors found the falsified records, combined with a separate batch of tickets that were never submitted to the database, skewed the state's racial profiling numbers making it appear troopers ticketed more white drivers and fewer minority motorists than they really did, the audit found.

Auditors cautioned they did not attempt to determine if the widespread problems were intentional, and officials have stressed no members of the public received tickets as a result of the problems.

The audit was conducted after Hearst Connecticut Media Group in August 2022 revealed that in 2018 four state troopers were disciplined for creating hundreds of fake tickets within the state police computer system. Those troopers told investigators they wrote fictitious tickets to boost their productivity statistics and curry favor with supervisors.

One trooper told investigators the fake tickets came from "creating what he called 'ghost stops' to increase his statistics and appear as if he was being a productive trooper, while in fact he was not doing much work at all." Later, the trooper denied saying that.

Tracking cruisers

A state police spokesperson said the department began installing GPS systems in certain police vehicles in 2006.

The GPS system can "locate a specific unit within 20 to 40 feet of the vehicle(s) exact location," the state police operations manual says, adding that a primary reason for having GPS tracking is officer safety.

"The ability of the GPS system to locate and identify specific unit(s) when other means of communication have either failed, are unavailable, or inaccessible makes the GPS system an extremely important officer safety resource," according to the manual.

The manual says GPS systems cannot be tampered with. "All location services features are to remain active and enabled on a department device at all times, including GPS, Find my Phone/Find my Device functionality and related functions," the manual says.

"No one except authorized technicians may unplug, cover, paint, tamper with, remove, relocate or take any action to effect any permanently installed equipment in an assigned state vehicle," the manual added.

Finding the motivation

James Rovella, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection which oversees several agencies including state police, said at a legislative forum in July he doesn't challenge the audit's methodology.

He said he is instead focused on having state police investigators dig into the audit's findings to determine if there was intent and — if intentional falsification is ultimately found — to figure out the motivation.

"What was the purpose? That's what we're trying to figure out," Rovella told lawmakers.

Rovella said, for years, a key part of assessing trooper performance focused on certain measurable on-the-job activities — including how prolific ticket writing was. Troopers with higher activity numbers were awarded with better cruisers or assignments. Indeed, some of the four troopers caught faking tickets in 2018 told internal investigators they were motivated to fabricate tickets to get nicer cruisers and assignments.

Rovella said the agency abandoned the practice of awarding perks to troopers with better performance statistics and ordered supervisors not to pressure troopers to hit certain metrics after he took over in 2019.

Union officials also described how the emphasis on troopers to meet productivity goals has lessened significantly under Rovella's leadership.

While the audit found the number of false and inaccurate tickets declined steadily between 2014 and 2021, there continued to be significant numbers of false and inaccurate tickets in 2019 and each year after.

"We still can't figure out the pay to play," Rovella said. "But that's important to me why we have to figure that out."

Experts said they suspect pressure from management for troopers to maintain certain levels of activity and the culture that created was a key motivator for ticket falsification.

Dennis Galvin, president of the Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement who retired as a major from the Massachusetts State Police two decades ago, said he recalled facing similar pressures to produce when he was on the force.

"I retired in 2003 and I could see it even then — the emphasis on statistics as opposed to outcomes," Galvin said. "When you are putting tactical numbers on people, or performance numbers, rather than the outcome you are fooling everyone. This is a management problem."

But other potential motivations for Connecticut troopers to falsify tickets should be explored, experts said.

Ross, the co-author of the ticket audit, said he suspects troopers may have issued false tickets to cover up skirting their duties or even skipping work.

"We have seen these types of scandals, overtime scandals in Massachusetts a few years ago and misidentification of Hispanic drivers in Texas," Ross said. "It's not a new thing, per say."

Ross said within the data he and other auditors scoured, some data entry patterns by troopers were telling. Many troopers flagged in the audit disproportionately attributed false or inaccurate tickets to "white" divers, the first option on the drop-down menu used to record stops. And many tickets were logged around midnight, again the first available option on the drop-down menu.

"You look at what's checked off, it's the first entry in the drop-down menu," Ross noted. "It could be intentionally trying to skew the demographics. But it looks like they are padding the numbers and are too lazy to fill out the demographic information."

Ross added: "When you set up a system where it's easy to skirt the system, some people are going to skirt the system."

Experts said reviewing GPS data could help investigators determine whether skipping duties or entire shifts was a potential motivation.

Bond, the Suffolk University professor, said while AVL technology has not been extensively used to provide evidence of wrongdoing or to clear officers, it is a useful tool to track the whereabouts of officers that agencies are increasingly turning to for such investigations.

"Several studies have used AVL data to manage unallocated police time, as well as track over and under policing," Bond said.

© 2023 The Middletown Press, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.