State Senate Approves Wide-Ranging Police Accountability Bill 21 – 15

On Tuesday night, the Connecticut State Senate voted 21 to 15 to approve an expansive police accountability bill including restrictions on qualified immunity and changes to “use of force” guidelines for police officers.

“This is an issue about power, about how power is used in communities. This is an issue about cost for communities,” said proponent of the bill State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, in an impassioned speech one hour into the more than 9-hour debate over the contentious bill. “This bill is not about the good officers. It’s about the officers who do not do their job … this is about who the actor is when the system breaks down.”

State Senator Gary Winfield, D-New Haven

“This bill seeks to equalize the power differential. It simply takes a step toward equalizing the powerful and the powerless,” said State Sen. Alexandra Kasser, D-Greenwich. “Justice is not achieved through domination and force, but through compassion. If this is the last vote that I take I am proud to take it because I believe it is one step forward on the arc of justice.”

“For any police officers listening, read the bill. There is no reason for you to panic or retire unless you’re verifiably a bad apple,” said State Senator Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford.

“Justice is not achieved through domination and force, but through compassion. If this is the last vote that I take I am proud to take it because I believe it is one step forward on the arc of justice.”

State Sen. Alexandra Kasser, D-Greenwich

According to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research, “The bill, in certain circumstances, eliminates the possibility of claiming governmental immunity as a defense to such suits,” a significant issue for many opposing the legislation. “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.”

“This bill is not about the good officers. It’s about the officers who do not do their job … this is about who the actor is when the system breaks down.”

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D- New Haven

The bill also establishes an Office of the Inspector General, 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 corrections 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 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.

Even supporters of the bill expressed misgivings about haste in approving the package of policing changes.

“I can’t figure out whether or not to vote for a bill that was rushed through the process because we have a moment. And I can appreciate that moments come and moments go,” said State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex. “There are a list of problems here … I think we can’t miss the moment.”

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, noted a lack of involvement in the stakeholders that will be impacted by the bill, including corrections officers.

“First and foremost, I strongly believe that this does not follow the correct process and I will continue to say this … If it is a transformative bill, it should have gone through the process,” said Osten, the last legislator to cast a vote.

State Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague

She also called out what she described as divisive rhetoric about the legislation both within and outside the chamber.

“In order for us to explain to all our different communities we need to work together. I don’t believe that’s what happened here. We divided communities across the state,” Osten said. “By allowing communities to be labeled as either anti-police or racist we left a bad taste in our respective communities … we could have done it and still been here today … I strongly suggest that we don’t do this again.”

Concern about process

Several senators said they were willing to vote yes on the bill only if the Judiciary Committee would agree to look at potential reforms to the bill in the September or January session.

“A bill like this would have gone through planning and development and two other committees at least – insurance and public safety. Because of COVID this is what we have,” said State Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester. “Maybe in September we can pass amendments, it’s not necessarily the final bill. No bill is the final bill if it’s passed here.”

“This bill should have gone through the public safety committee. It should have gone through the insurance committee. It should have gone through planning and development for municipalities. All those debates and public hearings would have fleshed out the decisions in this bill,”

State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Darien

State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Darien, echoed Cassano’s statement.

“This bill should have gone through the public safety committee. It should have gone through the insurance committee. It should have gone through planning and development for municipalities. All those debates and public hearings would have fleshed out the decisions in this bill,” he said. “When we don’t get it 100 percent right, I’m hopeful as we go into the next session that we can change parts of it.”

In response, some Republican legislators questioned the need to cut short the normal legislative process.

“There is no reason that this bill could not have gone through the regular process. I am hearing that we are going to come back later and fix what we may have missed…to me that is not good legislation,” said State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.

Looking to the future

Both Democratic and Republican legislators expressed concerns about the possible costs for municipalities and the possibility that police officers would leave or retire rather than work under provisions in the bill.

According to Osten, 20 percent of the Norwich police force was ready to retire early if the bill went into effect as they understood it. Somers said that 40 percent of the state police force are currently eligible for retirement.

“They have all said to me they will leave because they cannot work under these conditions,” Somers said. “This bill fails law enforcement.”

State Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, said that the bill would put the public in more danger.

“Removing qualified immunity as it stands now for all police officers which this bill does will devastate police officer’s ability to affect people in Connecticut,” he said. “I cannot and will not convince myself to support a bill that puts the public in more danger. Applying this bill into law will actually deter recruitment of good police officers.”

Others said that the bill levied significant costs and administrative burdens on towns, including additional liability insurance for police officers, additional training and drug testing.

“The title of this bill should reflect what the bill does: defund the police,” said State Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a former police officer. “When you make an unfunded bill so costly to municipalities, where do you think the costs are going to come from?”

According to Logan, the additional liability insurance alone is estimated by insurers to cost $30,000 for each officer every year they are employed. In his hometown of Ansonia, Logan said it would add up to just over $1 million each year, and in New Haven the expenses would total about $10.7 million per year for taxpayers.

State Senator Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport

“I love this flag and I vote for this knowing that it is not perfect and knowing that it is a compromise just as our founding fathers intended,” said State Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport. “I believe wholeheartedly that this bill is a compromise … we have to bring everybody together, not to put the cops down, but to protect all citizens of the republic.” 

Winfield assured all senators that in September and in January he was willing to have a conversation about any part of the bill and to work toward a perfected bill before the bulk of the legislation goes into effect in July 2021.