After more than 22 hours of discussion and debate in the legislative special session, the House of Representatives voted 86 to 58 to approve a wide-ranging police accountability bill written in wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and months of protests against police brutality across the country.
The bill was immediately sent to the State Senate.
“What we have before us is the best pro-police accountability bill and I’m convinced that the majority of officers in Connecticut would welcome it,” said State Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford.
Prior to the vote, State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a 20-year veteran police officer for the City of New London, urged his colleagues to pass the bill as is.
“Watch who votes. Watch who doesn’t vote,” said Nolan. “because the elections are coming. We heard you when you protested. We heard you when you rallied. We heard you through email. We know that it’s time to make this move to make it better. We can no longer stand by. We can no longer wait, it is now. Now is the time we need to push the bill.”
The deciding factor, especially in the Democratic caucus — in votes both for and against the law — were the limitations placed on qualified immunity for law enforcement in Section 41 of the bill.
“The bill, in certain circumstances, eliminates the possibility of claiming governmental immunity as a defense to such suits,” according to analysis provided by the legislature’s Office of Legislative Research. “In these civil actions, governmental immunity is not a defense for actions solely seeking equitable relief and in actions seeking damages unless, at the time of the conduct complained about, the officer had an objectively good faith belief that his or her conduct did not violate the law.”
According to State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the change to exclude officers who acted in a malicious, wanton or willful manner from qualified immunity begins to strike the right balance between accountability and protection for police officers.
For others, a bill including Section 41 was not a compromise at all.
“I stand very conflicted on what to do next. There are several of us who are damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” said State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington. “On the one hand I do believe this bill makes things better. On the other hand, I think we have good officers walking our streets and they fear that there is a hit on their profession.”
Cook, as well as Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Woodbridge, lamented the failure of an amendment, by a tie vote, to remove restrictions placed on use of qualified immunity.
“You’re going to see a lot of police officers retire. And departments not be able to hire, worse than now because of this,” Klarides said. “I really wish we took this one issue of qualified immunity out of this and let us study this. The problem is clear, but the solution is not clear.”
Nolan argued instead that the amended bill would not provide families with legal satisfaction, or accountability. He urged his colleagues to vote for the original bill.
“I’m not saying all police are bad. I believe we have numerous police who are great in every community, but we have police that do wrong and we need to hold them accountable,” said Nolan.
For Democratic members like Cook and Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, who voted across party lines for the amendment and against the bill, the discomfort was evident.
“When people look at me, they assume I’ll vote a different way from what I did,” said de la Cruz after the amendment failed and before the bill passed. “Well, my life experiences brought me to another decision. I spoke to my chiefs and they think a lot of folks don’t respect the job that they do … some of the things, they still think are going to be a big problem, but they are willing to work with it. This, they can’t.”
“I know I’m probably not the most popular guy in the room today,” said de la Cruz, “but I just want you and my constituents to know, when I vote, I always vote from the heart.”
Both Cook and de la Cruz said that they would have voted to approve the bill if the amendment had passed.
While Cook and de la Cruz crossed over to vote alongside Republicans, State Rep. Jesse MacLachlan, R-Westbrook, was the only Republican to cross over and vote for the bill.
In a Facebook post a few hours after the vote, MacLachlan wrote:
“This isn’t a perfect bill and changes were made based upon feedback from the public. The major sticking point that I heard from constituents was a section that held officers personally liable. That section was significantly watered down in a compromise so that officers would be held personally harmless unless found guilty by a court of violating someone’s constitutional rights — a very high standard.
I personally have always felt safe around law enforcement. Unfortunately, many people who don’t look like me do not feel that way. This was the most difficult vote I’ve taken during my time in office and I chose to support this bill because I believe it helps get us closer to a place where everyone feels safe around the vast majority of men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us everyday.”
If passed by the Senate, the bill in its current form would mandate a wide range of changes — 44 separate measures — in policing in addition to limiting qualified immunity.
These changes include establishing an Office of the Inspector General. The bill also authorizes the creation of municipal civilian review boards, establishes multiple avenues of oversight, responsibility and investigation of police conduct, including a requirement that police or correction officers intervene and report other officers’ use of excessive force. The bill would also limit searches of motor vehicles stopped solely for motor vehicle violations. The bill would limit the circumstances when a law enforcement officer may use of deadly physical force and the use of chokeholds. The bill also mandates a process to develop a uniform statewide policy for crowd management by police officers.