HARTFORD – Under what circumstances should a police officer who leaves one department because of misconduct be banned from ever being hired by another?
That question and a legislative bill that would expand those conditions moved closer to a debate by the General Assembly after a vote Tuesday by its Public Safety and Security Committee to advance it.
The bill toughens language in a version passed last year by broadening the situations that could lead to such a ban – including those involving discrimination and use of physical force – and has been opposed by the state’s largest municipal police union.
“I think it’s important that officers who are not morally appropriate to be doing this job not be in the profession,” said Rep. Greg Howard, a Stonington police officer and ranking Republican on the committee.
The law enacted last year prohibits a police department from hiring an officer who “was dismissed for malfeasance or other serious misconduct calling into question such person’s fitness to serve as a police officer,” or an officer who “resigned or retired from such officer’s position while under investigation for such malfeasance or other serious misconduct.”
Changes to that bill were proposed this year by the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which includes the state police, at the recommendation of the Police Officer Standards and Training Council, which certifies officers for duty.
Agency Commissioner James Rovella told the committee last week that he supports the bill because “it is vital that we hold our law enforcement to the highest standards.”
But a representative of the state’s largest municipal police union says the proposal goes too far, especially in light of the passage of the somewhat less-stringent law passed last year.
“It has been made easier to fire a police officer,” said Brian Anderson, legislative director for Council 4 AFSCME’s public safety chapter, representing about 2,000 police officers. “It has been made extremely difficult for an officer who made a mistake, albeit serious, to rehabilitate him or herself. At what point is there overkill in monitoring, disciplining or calling into question the overall character of police officers?”
The proposed changes also would prohibit the Police Officer Standards and Training Council from certifying any officer who left a department under such circumstances, effectively making them ineligible to be hired elsewhere.
The standards involved in deciding whether an officer should be dismissed for misconduct will remain at the discretion of the local department.
Other offenses covered in the current law include accepting a bribe, fabricating evidence, or being convicted of a felony.
Among the handful of the 24-member committee who voted against advancing the proposal Tuesday was Rep. Carol Hall, R-Enfield.
“I understand the intentions of this bill and I think there’s certainly some good parts of it,” Hall said. “The things that have me concerned are the same concerns that our stakeholders have in this.”
Hall pointed to one change in the proposal that would update the law now on the books regarding an officer’s use of force.
Existing law says officers may be banned from being hired by another department if they were found to have used “repeated use of excessive physical force.”
The new language changes that section to read “use of physical force in a manner found to not be justifiable” after an investigation.
The update also would include “failure to intervene or stop the use of force by another police officer,” among the offenses covered in the bill.
“Until some changes are made to accommodate these concerns I will definitely be a ‘no’ on this bill,” Hall said.
Her comments were backed by Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford.
“In talking to some of the stakeholders myself I think that there are still maybe some things that could be done better,” Vail said. “I always vote on what’s in front of me, not on what something can become and with those reservations I will be voting no today.”
Howard said that while he understands those “minor” concerns and has also spoken personally to other officers about them, the proposal should move forward.
“There are a few questions that they have, some issues that may need to be worked on in this bill going forward,” he said before voting to advance it.
State Victim Advocate Natasha M. Pierre spoke in favor of the expanded bill, saying that it would “ensure that when a Connecticut police officer is dismissed for serious misconduct or retires or resigns while under investigation for serious misconduct, that person will not be able to simply go to the next town and be hired as a police officer.”
Photo Credit: Police officers are seen during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York City, U.S., May 31, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs