After four months away from the Capitol, Connecticut’s state legislature is getting ready to gavel in a special session.
Their first order of business was a public hearing on a police accountability bill Friday.
The bill is one of four pieces of legislation lawmakers will take up in the weeks to come.
Normally public hearings are conducted inside the state Capitol, but because of the unprecedented times created by the coronavirus pandemic, Friday’s listening session took place virtually.
Barbara Fair of Stop Solitary CT was one of 150 people who signed up to testify before the Judiciary Committee.
“This is not about George Floyd, they need to stop talking about this, this is about 401 years of terrorism of African people sanctioned in this country,” she told them.
The committee also received 350 pieces of written testimony.
“It’s not only critical for protecting Black and brown lives on the streets, but also in the courtroom,” said Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project.
Donna Johnston, a self-described Democrat and social worker from a multi-racial family questioned the timing of the bill.
“I can’t comprehend why anyone would support extensive police reform. It doesn’t seem warranted or necessary,” the Griswold woman said. “Enacting police reforms that pass financial burden onto residents will cripple individuals and families.”
The 65-page bill calls for an independent review of excessive force complaints and limits the use of chokeholds. Several mandates carry an additional expense for cities and towns such as the purchase of body and dash cameras and extra assessments and training.
“Parts of this are just another form of de-funding police,” said Sen. Dan Champagne (R - Vernon).
“There’s no question that the cost is something that is going to be borne by the taxpayers, however as a former police chief I truly believe that the investment in the body cameras and dash cameras is probably an investment that needs to be had,” said Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary (D).
Though he voiced strong support for most of the bill, O’Leary noted his concern over the elimination of qualified immunity, which protects police officers from lawsuits.
“There’s going to be insurance coverage costs, there’s going to be litigation costs, there’s going to be an incredible amount of cost to the taxpayers of this city here in Waterbury and across the state,” said O’Leary.
The head of the Connecticut State Police Union, Andy Matthews, said eliminating qualified immunity will make it harder to recruit and retain troopers.
“Police officers would fail to act when necessary for fear of being sued,” said Matthews. “They’re actually going to hesitate to the point that they or a third party is going to be injured or killed, and I think that’s a real threat."
“Part of the cost that we should be talking about is the potential cost to human lives,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, (D - New Haven).
Winfield, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said officers could only be sued for specific misconduct according to his understanding of the new language.
“You have to have deprived someone of their civil rights,” he explained.
State Rep. Brandon McGee warned that efforts to water down the bill would be met with resistance from the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
“We will fight to have a bill with teeth and an impact on the community,” he said.
Supporters said the time to act is now, but critics argued that Connecticut police are already held accountable.
“I feel like this legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to what is going on in the country, and I hear a lot of people citing things that are going on around the country and not in Connecticut,” said Janice Colendrea of Meriden.
“I’m disappointed this is the best legislators can do. This is not social justice, this is social destruction,” Johnston added.
Colleen Lord, who testified that her son Robby Talbot was assaulted and killed in prison, pleaded with lawmakers to remove qualified immunity from corrections officers, too.
“He didn’t deserve to die. He didn’t deserve to be in excruciating pain,” said Lord. “Because of the qualified immunity he won’t be seeing justice.”
The Judiciary Committee will meet to finalize the language in the bill they’ve drafted. A vote in the House could come as early as the end of next week.