Old Saybrook Department of Police Services (CT Examiner/McDermott)

Social Media Posts Spur Wave of Resignations as Police Accountability is Dropped from Special Session

Kevin Coughlin, director of communications for the Connecticut Senate Democrats, confirmed that revisions to the police accountability bill will not be considered in a second special session of the legislature planned for the last week of September.

According to Andrew Matthews, attorney for the Connecticut State Police Union, the union and attorneys representing the legislature have developed 22 proposals over the past two months targeting areas of concern in the bill and places for potential change. 

 The Connecticut State Police Union has been in discussions with legislative leaders and supporters of the bill since it was signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont on July 31.

“We had assurances from [legislative leadership] that they would have a special session in September to address our concerns, but just last week they went against their word and they are now not having in until after the election,” said Matthews.

One area of concern addressed “conduct that undermines public confidence in law enforcement.” 

“This section needs to be clearly defined,” said Matthews. “It’s vague and there is no exhaustive list. Social media posts could be interpreted to mean undermining the public trust.” 

According to Matthews, many union members are concerned that the bill could be used to revoke an officer’s certification if a social media or blog is interpreted as racially insensitive or demeaning to a particular group of people. 

“We would prefer if people just deleted their Facebook and Twitter accounts and avoided this,” Matthews said. “It’s just not worth their careers.”

Given the number of resignations of local officials and public employees in recent weeks due to their actions on social media — a Danbury Public School Teacher, a Groton Board of Education member, the Westbrook Fire Chief, a Stonington Police Commissioner and leadership of the Madison Republic Town Meeting and Chamber of Commerce — these concerns aren’t far-fetched. 

The conduct provision in practice

According to Sachin Pandya, a professor at the UConn School of Law, the bill is certainly open-ended when it comes to what constitutes “conduct that undermines public confidence,” but does nothing to impede upon an individuals’ first amendment right to free speech.

“I can’t say an officer won’t resign for many reasons, whether it’s that they don’t want more to come out in a hearing or they feel they actually did some sort of misconduct … but you’re supposed to construe a statute to avoid constitutional doubt,” explained Pandya.

In other words, if an action – in this case posting on social media – constitutes speech in their capacity as a citizen, then they would be protected under both the first amendment and the Connecticut State Constitution. 

Law enforcement, like any government body, is protected by the first amendment and in Connecticut that protection applies to public and private employees alike. According to Pandya, when the legislature writes a statute they have to reconcile it with previous laws, including the state and federal constitutions. 

“The language of the bill is broad to cover the vast variety of ways that a law enforcement officer could undermine public confidence … but it should be read in a way that avoids interfering with free speech,” he said. “The language is so broad that they don’t have to run into the first amendment.” 

According to Pandya, for a police officer to lose his or her certification under the new bill, a law enforcement unit would need to determine that the conduct undermined public confidence and then the POST council would have to decide to revoke the certification. If the conduct can be classified as speech, then the officer would in all likelihood be protected under the first amendment and the Connecticut constitution, so the chances the case would even be brought is slim.

“If the council decides after all these steps to revoke and the basis was an activity that counts as protected speech, then the POST council’s revocation would violate the first amendment,” Pandya said. 

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