Connecticut lawmakers were warned Friday that a wide-ranging police accountability bill, which would allow officers to be personally sued in certain circumstances for violating someone’s civil rights, will have serious ramifications, including discouraging recruitment of new officers and prompting many existing ones to resign or retire.
Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, told members of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee that some police officers might also be discouraged from taking action during a call or reduce their interactions with the public because they’ll be afraid of getting sued.
“No police officer, we believe, will risk their physical or financial stability for an employer who will not stand by them, defend them when they need to,” said Matthews, referring to a section of the bill that would not allow certain governmental immunity protections for officers who commit serious transgressions.
More than 150 people signed up to speak during Friday’s “listening session” on a bipartisan bill aimed at reforming police practices and training in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people. It was the first major legislative hearing to be held virtually during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the language is not yet finalized, lawmakers plan to vote on the proposal in an upcoming special legislative session.
Late Friday, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont issued a proclamation calling the General Assembly back to the state Capitol, beginning on July 21. Besides the police accountability bill, the legislature is expected to vote on temporarily expanding the use of absentee ballots to the general election given the ongoing coronavirus epidemic; temporarily relaxing rules for telehealth services and requiring coverage by Medicaid and private insurance plans; and capping the price insulin.
Despite concerns raised about the proposed reforms during Friday’s hearing by police officers, some of whom said they felt unfairly tainted by the bad actions of officers in other states, both activists and community members said Connecticut has its own fair share of police shootings, problem officers and long-standing racial inequities that need to finally be addressed.
Barbara Fair of West Haven, a clinical social worker and veteran activist, noted how the General Assembly acted quickly to pass various criminal justice reforms after three members of a prominent white family in Cheshire were murdered in 2007.
“I’d like to have that happen now,” she said. “I think people are tired of waiting for justice. They’re tired of waiting for excuses. We’re tired of the police trying to be the victim when they’re abusing and killing people. 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.”
The bill being considered includes about 40 sections that touch on issues ranging from police training to police discipline. It would create a new independent office of the inspector general to investigate use of force cases and prosecute when necessary; require all officers to periodically have mental health screenings; and change the state’s “use of force” policy, moving from a subjective standard to a more objective standard for when force is appropriate.
Other provisions include requiring officers to intervene if they witness police using excessive force and providing those officers with whistleblower protections; allowing chokeholds only when officers need to themselves from possible deadly force; making police disciplinary records subject to the Freedom of Information Act; and requiring body and dashboard cameras for all officers engaging with the public.
The provision regarding ending immunity protections for certain officers appeared to be one of the most controversial sections of the bill. Last month, state legislators in Colorado passed a similar measure in a police reform bill that requires police officers to pay up to 5% or $25,000 — down from $100,000 in the original proposal — of any civil judgment if they were believed to have knowingly violated the law, with their employer paying the rest.
Darren Stewart, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said the immunity protection for an officer that currently exists in Connecticut only takes effect after all parties of a lawsuit have been heard and a neutral magistrate agrees it’s appropriate. He said the legislation raises questions among officers about its intent and what it means for an officer.
“The elimination of this protection will make recruitment and retention even harder and it will ultimately foist the cost of reasonable police errors upon the citizenry in terms of higher tax dollars to pay the associated civil court judgments and attorney’s fees,” he said in written testimony.
But State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the Judiciary Committee’s co-chair, said the bill is written carefully to make sure it only pertains to cases where an officer’s actions are “willful or deliberate.”
The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association supports the concept. In written testimony, the organization said eliminating qualified immunity would provide victims of injustices like excessive force and false arrest “a way to redress the violation of those rights and receive fair compensation for the injuries and mistreatment they suffer.”
The association said qualified immunity all too often gives police a “free pass” if they’ve violated a person’s rights.