Conn. chiefs, officers seek changes to new accountability law in special session
Police officials are looking to tweak sections that include restrictions on use of force and broadened grounds for termination
By Christopher Keating
The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Conn. — Less than two months after a sweeping police accountability bill was signed into law, police chiefs and rank-and-file officers are asking the legislature to make changes in an upcoming special session.
The Police Officers Association of Connecticut is not seeking to overturn the entire law, but is instead seeking to tweak sections that they say have hurt morale and led to early retirements they predict will continue into the future.
Those provisions include new restrictions on the use of deadly force that officers say are too vague and the banning of “consent” searches that officers say will lead to fewer guns and drugs being taken off the streets during routine traffic stops. The new law also allows officers to be fired for “undermining public confidence in police work,” but officers say that term needs to be better defined and makes them hesitant to do their jobs.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said they are open to changes but not a wholesale rewrite of the complex, 71-page bill. They are willing to make specific fixes, but no final decisions have been made on the police bill or the full agenda that will be debated in the special session.
The Senate would likely vote during the week of Sept. 21, and the House the following week, lawmakers said. After extensive controversy following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, the bill was passed largely along party lines by both the state House of Representatives and Senate before being signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Looney said that only narrow changes would be considered in an attempt to clarify the law and avoid the through-the-night debates that occurred in both chambers in May.
“It would have to depend upon an agreement to do surgical changes without having to reopen the whole issue to every amendment under the sun that people could think of,” he said. “It’s a matter under discussion.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who helped write the bill and has been involved in police issues for the past 10 years, will be meeting in the coming days with the police officers association and said he expects to talk about the issues the officers have raised.
“I think some of the things that people say are unclear are actually clear. They just don’t like them,” Winfield, co-chair of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said. “If it’s actually unclear, I think it’s important to make sure that what we’re intending to do is clear, and therefore would be willing to have a conversation about what we can do in special session about those things. ... I want to fix problems if there are problems.”
Besides the officers, Winfield will be meeting separately with members of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association in a Zoom meeting Wednesday to discuss some of the same issues, including the use of deadly force, consent searches and a new provision in the law that says police and correction officers who witness excessive or illegal force “shall intervene and attempt to stop” the use of force or else face potential prosecution for the same act.
In addition to the police bill, legislators said they are considering more than a dozen issues as possible items for the special session, including the annual school construction bill, consumer protection measures for utility customers and legislation seeking to prevent sexual misconduct on college campuses.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who helped write the police accountability law as co-chair of the judiciary committee, said he understands the police concerns about "consent searches” but said that officers will still have wide latitude when that section of the bill becomes law on Oct. 1.
“If the officer walks up to the car and smells marijuana or sees the barrel of a gun sticking out from under the seat, that’s all probable cause to search the vehicle,” Stafstrom said. “All we’re talking about is those instances where someone is pulled over just for a purely motor vehicle violation. ... We know that minorities are much more likely to be subject to a consent search. In those instances where you don’t have probable cause that there is some other crime, you can’t ask to go on a fishing expedition through somebody’s car.”
Stafstrom said he favors making the law clear, but added that he does not want to re-litigate issues that have already been decided.
“If there are issues that truly are clarifying language and cleaning up ambiguity, those are the types of things I’m willing to entertain,” he said.
Based on concerns raised by police and others, the section of the bill changing details on the use of deadly force was pushed back to April 1, 2021. The most controversial aspect of the bill, concerning whether police can suffer personal financial damages in civil lawsuits related to the legal concept of qualified immunity, does not become effective until July 1, 2021. As a result, legislators said that those sections could be debated once the General Assembly’s regular session begins again on Jan. 6.
Sgt. Otis Baskins, a 14-year veteran at the Naugatuck Police Department with a wide variety of experiences as a firearms instructor, SWAT team member and police trainer on implicit bias, said the bill has hurt morale and prompted some veteran officers to leave earlier than expected.
“Being that the legislators are tying our hands with doing our jobs, that is the consensus among everybody in law enforcement who can retire,” Baskins said. “People are looking at other opportunities to do something besides law enforcement. And good cops — cops who’ve never been in trouble, cops who’ve always done a good job, cops who do well in the community — are thinking about doing something else. It would be a loss for the rookies, too, because they need to learn. There are a lot of cops who are 22, 24, 25 years old. They need these cops to guide them in the right direction and do the job the right way. It’s a scary thought.”
Ritter said he is open to reviewing changes sought by police in the special session, as long as it does not lead to a wide-ranging and drawn-out debate on the entire law.
“We’re always willing to have conversations with folks, but I would agree with Marty that we are going in for one day — as the goal — in both chambers,” Ritter said. “The debate would be limited in scope, and that’s going to require cooperation of all four caucuses.”
Deputy House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford, who voted against the bill, said his caucus would like to see improvements. Rep. Jesse McLachlan of Westbrook was the only Republican lawmaker to support the bill, and he is not seeking reelection.
“The Republicans wanted to see many of those changes made, even before it was signed into law,” Candelora said. “That bill was ill-conceived to begin with. I think we are working toward trying to make changes that are acceptable to everybody, in particular our police force, but given that there wasn’t a will to fix these things originally in the bill, I don’t know if the Democrats will have the support to make those changes.”
©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)