Part of Connecticut’s controversial police accountability law is getting a second look. Those in charge of putting the new rules into practice say the way it’s written right now may put officers who lay their lives on the line in more harm.
Several in law enforcement took the opportunity to have their voice heard during Monday’s public hearing on a new bill that makes changes to the law.
Connecticut's use of force law is supposed to go into effect in just over a month, but most Connecticut police officers aren’t expected to finish their training until late next year.
“We’re not ready,” said Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, speaking on behalf of the state’s new police transparency and accountability task force. “This represents a change in a longstanding principle by which every Connecticut police officer has been trained, some for many years.”
Mello urged lawmakers to move the effective date from April 1 of this year to October of 2022. That's how long he said it will take to train all 9,000 municipal and state officers in Connecticut in the state's new use of force standards.
“If we can’t get everyone through the training, how can you hold this new law accountable against anybody?" asked Republican State Senator Dan Champagne of Vernon.
Some Democrats pushed back during the discussion.
“I know it does represent a change but I want us to be mindful that this was enacted due to the disproportionate use of force in communities of color, especially deadly force. When you talk about police officers and public and safety, let’s remember we want the public to feel like they’re being protected as well,’” said Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat from Hamden.
As written, an officer must "exhaust" alternatives to deadly force. The drafted bill changes the word to “considered," a large focus of the line of questioning from lawmakers to those who signed up to speak.
“Considered means I thought about, did I do anything with it or not?” questioned Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Democrat from Bridgeport.
“Somebody pulls a gun on you, do I need to try and use my spray, do I need to try to use a baton, then I can move my gun, which obviously I think we can all recognize I wouldn’t be able to get any of those done,” explained Farmington Police Chief Paul Melanson, of the Connecticut Police Chief’s Association.
Another word substitution changes the risk of injury from “substantial” to “unreasonable,” which supporters argue could prevent an officer from second-guessing their decision in the heat of the moment.
“We have limited time to run through a whole litany of what I could do and what’s going to be the most effective,” said Killingly police officer Paul McElroy. “The longer we allow the confrontation to go on, that will probably increase our need to use more force.”
“You can’t judge objective reasonableness by what a person didn’t know and there’s no reason for them to know. You could have a situation where somebody will seek to justify their actions after the fact by essentially claiming ignorance,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, a Democrat from Stamford.
“Reasonable is subjective depending on the zip code,” added Porter. “There are so many things that have happened in this state that really do support the need for this bill.”
Possessing a "dangerous instrument" was also added, referring to the person upon whom deadly physical force was used. The current law only lists a deadly weapon.
Porter questioned whether a cell phone or a pencil in school could be interpreted as dangerous by an officer. Mello said it could not.
“There is definitely some clarity needed in this language," said Republican Rep. Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck. "Legislation should never pass knowing that it needs to be corrected.”
Supporters argued these changes don’t water down the law but clarify the intent for police officers tasked with making split-second, life-saving decisions for the public and themselves.
“It’s the most restrictive use of force policy in the country,” Mello told Stafstrom when he asked whether or not the changes would weaken the law. “We’re not asking that it be repealed, we’re asking that we clear up the ambiguity and provide greater clarity.”