The Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, established last year as part of a legislative reform bill, met on Monday for the first time since March.
As task force members discussed ideas to address public concerns with the police – including ways to increase accountability and ways to limit police encounters in the first place – lawmakers said they couldn’t wait for the group’s final report before they start moving legislation to address police accountability.
During the task force’s discussion during the Monday meeting, Milford Police Chief Keith Mello and Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik both pointed to the mediation process that restricts how much police chiefs can do to punish bad behavior by their officers.
Law enforcement makes up more than half of the thirteen-member task force, which includes five police chiefs, the state Police Commissioner, a Hartford police sergeant and a former New Haven police sergeant.
When excessive use of force reaches the point of criminality, as in the killing of George Floyd, it’s too late, Mello said. Task force Chair Daryl McGraw noted that Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering Floyd had at least 18 complaints made against him before he killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
“Many of us say, ‘If I owned this police department,’ it’d be much different,” he said.
Alongside suggestions to hold police accountable for misconduct, some task force members offered suggestions to prevent police encounters from going off track in the first place. Two task force members suggested limiting police involvement for minor infractions and for situations — like a mental health crises — that police are poorly equipped to handle.
Mello said there was some validity to calls to defund the police that have become a rallying point for some protests around the country. He disagreed with entirely disbanding police departments, but said that more resources should be directed to professional mental health services and crisis intervention teams.
“We’re put in situations where we really aren’t equipped for handling homelessness and handling mental health,” Mello said.
Shafiq Abdussabur, a former New Haven Police sergeant, said that the police shouldn’t be in the position of pulling over drivers for minor violations, like having a brake light out or an expired emissions sticker. Those laws needlessly place police in the same space as poor and marginalized people, including people who are African-American or Hispanic, he said.
When police pull over someone who poor or disenfranchised, and then ticket them for a problem that they cannot control, that person grows more frustrated and the situation becomes more volatile, he said.
Police should minimize these volatile encounters unless absolutely necessary, Abdussabur said.
“‘I’m being beat up by my wife, help, police come save me.’ That’s one. ‘I’m being attacked by a robber, come save me.’” Abdussabur said. “But because my emissions sticker is out, police, I don’t need you to come and collect taxes on behalf of the government.”
A changed context
The committee was originally tasked with considering the issue of law enforcement encounters with people with disabilities, and to consider whether it would be feasible for officers to issue receipts for traffic stops the would include demographic information of the driver and the reason for the stop.
But recent cases of police killings of black Americans, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, have recast the task force and placed systemic racism and police accountability at the center of a national conversation, since the task force last met in March.
While acknowledging the work of the task force, State Sen. Gary Winfield, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, made it clear that the legislature would not wait for its report to move forward with legislation to increase police accountability. Winfield say that although the legislature will try to make the any legislation as comprehensive as possible, the task force will still have work to do, Winfield said.
“We do have to reckon with the fact that we’re going to be coming at this from two different directions,” Winfield said. “Whether everybody wants to or not, that’s where we’re headed.”
People aren’t going to accept that a task force is going to come up with a report in several months that offers suggestions on how to move forward, and that’s a good thing, said Winfield.
“The time is now to stop slow-playing this issue,” said Rep. Josh Hall, D-Hartford, the lone lawmaker on the task force.