NEW BRAINTREE - State Police will begin their first recruit training class since 2006 today, in hopes of soon bringing 251 new troopers onto Massachusetts roadways in an effort to crack down on driving scofflaws and preserve specialized crime units.
Officials say the infusion will bolster the force at a time when it is increasingly called upon to play a key role in antiterrorism efforts and to assist cities and towns whose own departments have been depleted by budget cuts.
“People will see more police officers on the road,’’ Colonel Marian McGovern, State Police superintendent, said in an interview at the police academy training center here. “We’re going to be able to take care of the issues that have been important to us all along, and that’s aggressive drivers out there, impaired operators, and distracted operators.
From 2005 to 2008 drunken-driving arrests across the state rose dramatically. But since 2008, when there were 5,345 arrests, the numbers have declined each year - a drop that officials attribute to having fewer troopers to make arrests. So far this year, there have been 2,947 motorists charged with drunken driving.
“Having 251 more troopers out there will mean that in a year or two, someone’s life will be saved who would otherwise be hit and killed by a drunk driver,’’ said David Procopio, State Police spokesman.
The additional officers will also allow veteran troopers who are in gang units, connected to district attorneys’ offices for major crime investigations, or serve in other specialized operations to continue those assignments rather than return to patrols to fill in the gaps, he said.
Since 2006, as many as 500 troopers have retired, leaving the department with about 2,050 sworn officers. As a result, requests for time off are routinely denied.
The State Police operating budget has dropped in each of the past three years, from $257 million in 2009 to $228 million this fiscal year.
In January, Governor Deval Patrick proposed a surcharge on auto-insurance policies to pay for new cadets, but state lawmakers did not adopt the measure. The funding has come from a variety of other sources, with $2.7 million being carried over from last year’s appropriation, $2 million from the Legislature’s supplemental budget, and $2.7 million in federal grants through the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
The training costs about $5.5 million per cycle. The rest of the allocation will fund the three-month break-in phase for troopers after graduation.
Today, 251 recruits will start a 21-week course that includes firearms training, criminal law, highway safety, and drills for dozens of scenarios they will probably encounter during their careers.
The sprawling 800-acre academy, nestled in the hills of this rural Worcester County town, has not been dormant in recent years, as other law enforcement agencies routinely use the complex for training, and troopers return to update their training. But now it will be busier than it has been since the 79th Recruit Training Troop completed exercises in 2006.
The wait has been long for these new recruits. They took the civil service exam in 2009, along with about 11,000 other people. About 10,000 of those applicants checked off a box indicating they were applying to become State Police.
In March, about 700 potential recruits with the highest scores were contacted by State Police officials and asked whether they were still interested in applying. A month later, they were at the academy, completing oral exams and physical testing. Acceptance letters were then sent out to 251.
Half of the new recruits are military veterans, and there are 33 minorities and 11 women.
Their days will begin at 5:30 a.m. with physical training. They must complete 100 hours of that in addition to learning defensive tactics.
At least a fourth of those who start the training eventually drop out, said Captain David Otte, the lead drill instructor. Waiting to step in are 30 applicants on a standby list, people who have already gone through the pretesting and have had their measurements taken for the sweatsuits and light brown khaki uniforms they would wear during training.
“It’s demanding, yes, but everyone knows what they are getting into and they’ve been preparing,’’ Otte said.
The training includes 75 scenarios that troopers may encounter, such as domestic violence calls or drug-house raids. Some of that training will take place on Circle Drive, a cul-de-sac on academy grounds that resembles a movie studio backlot. A dozen houses line the street, but there are telling clues that nobody actually lives in them: There are no curtains, welcome mats, flowers, or children’s play sets in sight.
“That’s where we do the tear-gas scenario,’’ Otte said, pointing to one of the houses from a van during a recent tour.
Daily training ends at 9:30 each evening, and the recruits are free to go home on weekends. Graduation is scheduled for March 9, 2012.
Then comes the three-month break-in phase, when graduates team up with experienced troopers for patrols. The new trooper will conduct most stops under the watchful eye of the veteran.
“We rather they make mistakes here, so we can correct them before they are on their own,’’ Otte said.