Critics of a wide-ranging police accountability proposal that passed the House of Representatives after an all-night special session debate Friday, now plan to turn their attention to the state Senate, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the wide-ranging legislation sparked by the death of George Floyd and other Black citizens.
Organizations representing municipalities across the state warned that a retooled, contentious section of the bill concerning limiting legal immunity protections for officers still puts cities and towns at risk for potentially higher legal and insurance costs if an officer is sued civilly for violating someone’s constitutional rights.
“We will be continuing to call on state senators to delete that provision,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, acknowledging, however, that it’s “unlikely” the Democratic-controlled Senate will make any changes to the bill considering the House, also controlled by Democrats, has now adjourned. There’s a possibility lawmakers may return for a second special session in September. The next regular session begins in January.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities on Friday also raised concerns about potential costs to cities and towns stemming from other parts of the bill, including language that only justifies a police officer using force if they’ve exhausted all reasonable alternatives.
After hours of sometimes emotionally charged debate in a nearly empty House chamber, given the social distancing measures, the bill passed 86-58. It came a day after hundreds of police officers rallied at the state Capitol to protest portions they said will ultimately lead to more retirements, recruitment challenges and officers not responding to calls. Proponents, on the other hand, emphatically argued the legislation is long past due, given the racial inequities in the state and the injustices minority residents experience daily.
“For me, this isn’t a philosophical question. This isn’t some issue of town rights or some issue of money or local control. It’s a matter of life and death,” said Rep. Pat Wilson Pheanious, D-Ashford, who is Black. “It’s a matter of being treated like a whole American.”
Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a Black police officer who helped to negotiate the legislation, described how he’s been followed and warned by fellow officers in recent weeks to “be careful” and to “watch what I say.” He expressed frustration that even though changes were made to accommodate officers who feared losing their homes or a child’s college savings in a lawsuit, ensuring they would not be financially liable, critics still weren’t satisfied.
“And now people are worried about the burden on the municipalities? Don’t get me wrong, there will be an increase. But the municipality already owns that burden,” said Nolan, who implored his legislative colleagues to “vote with your heart, not your head.”
An amendment to delete the immunity provision from the bill failed on a rare tie vote in the House.
The police accountability bill was originally negotiated between Democrats and Republicans, with the hope there could be a bipartisan response to the demands for police reform. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, tearfully spoke about her disappointment with how the debate had devolved into “picking sides” between the police and minorities who’ve been harmed by the police.
“I believe we all wanted to make this work. I had faith in it,” she said of the negotiations. But she said the final version of the bill will ultimately impede the ability of police officers to do their jobs.
Besides allowing civil lawsuits against officers by individuals who’ve had their constitutional rights violated by the police whose actions were “malicious, wanton or willful,” the bill reforms police practices and training. It includes a new inspector general to investigate police use-of-force cases, periodic mental health screenings for officers, new limits on circumstances in which deadly use of force is justified, mandatory body cameras for all officers in the state and imposes limits on military-style equipment for local departments.
The proposal also would limit the use of chokeholds and other restraints that impair breathing and require officers to intervene when they see other officers using excessive force and report the misconduct to their superiors.
Bridgeport Democratic Rep. Steve Stafstrom, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called the bill a “comprehensive package that will bring much-needed, commonsense transparency and accountability into Connecticut’s police departments.”
“The bill before us is not anti-cop,” he said. “We understand that change is hard, but oftentimes, change is also necessary.”