The Connecticut House of Representatives on Tuesday advanced a bill that would delay and curtail provisions of a wide-ranging police accountability bill approved by lawmakers last July restricting when police officers can use deadly force.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 146-0, delays the starting date of new use-of-force standards to Jan. 1, 2022, and amends language in those guidelines to be more accommodating to police officers. The House’s bill will now head to the Senate for approval.
Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters before the House met that he believes the bill passed today “improves without watering down” language from the bill passed last July, and gives more time for local police departments to train officers in the new standards.
Kelly McConney Moore, interim senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Connecticut, wrote to lawmakers warning that the new legislation rolls back provisions that already didn’t go far enough, by failing to limit when police can use deadly force to situations when it is “necessary and proportional,” or clearly defining de-escalation or specifying that the entire interaction with police needs to be examined to determine if deadly force was justified.
“There is nothing in this bill that explains what kind of consideration is necessary or whether a police employee is allowed to consider an alternative to deadly force for the briefest of time periods and then reject it for any reason at all, or none,” Moore wrote.
The 2020 police accountability bill mandated that police could only use deadly force when they reasonably believe they are defending themselves or others from deadly force, or when they have “exhausted reasonable alternatives” to deadly force and determined it doesn’t pose a “substantial” risk to third parties.
With the new bill, the requirement that an officer has “exhausted the reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly, physical force” becomes a requirement that the officer “reasonably determined” there are no alternatives to deadly force.
The standard for an officer’s the use of force set in the July bill – to avoid actions causing a “substantial” risk of injury to a third party – was changed to an “unreasonable” risk of injury.
Milford Police Chief Keith Mello wrote to lawmakers that the word “exhausted” creates an expectation that an officer would have to progress through other alternatives to deadly, physical force, and that is not always possible.
“All other alternatives should certainly and thoughtfully be considered, but the officer must respond in a manner that is proportional to the threat,” Mello wrote. “To expect an officer to try lesser responses that are disproportionate and ineffective places his or her life and the safety of the public at risk.”
Mello wrote that the standard of reasonable risk to third parties makes more sense than a substantial risk, because there is always the danger that an officer could miss when shooting a gun, and that bullet could hit someone else.
The bill also delays the date when the use of force standards take effect to Jan. 1, 2022, from the original effective date of April 1, 2021.
Florencio Cotto, president of the New Haven Police Union and Police Officers Association of Connecticut, wrote that the use of force laws needed to be delayed so officers can be fully trained to meet the new standard.
Mello, who serves as chair of the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, or POST, wrote that the council needs time to develop training standards based on the law, train instructors in those new standards, and have those instructors train officers throughout the state. That could happen by Oct. 1, 2022, he wrote. Stafstrom said that Mello agreed to a compromise effective date of Jan. 1, 2022.
“It is critical that our police officers have the clarity, the direction and the guidance they need to not only keep the public safe, but also keep themselves safe,” Mello wrote.
Moore wrote that the fact police are asking for an extension so they can be fully trained on the new use of force standards prove that those standards are not an “obscure, little-used piece of legal marginalia.”
“The use of force standard is a part of all police trainings, well understood by every police employee. It is also an expression of our cultural norms about police violence,” Moore wrote. “We owe it to the people police are most likely to kill – Black and Latinx men and people in mental health crisis – to make this norm clear and strong.”
The bill passed on Tuesday did not include language that would expand the justification in a state attorney investigation of a killing by the police to include the threat of a “dangerous instrument, “ from the current language of deadly weapon. The POST council had requested that change, but it was removed in committee.
A number of lawmakers said on Tuesday that they hoped this revision would be just the first of several revisions to the wide-ranging police accountability bill voted into law last July in special session as protests spread across the country over killings of Black people by police.