A bill that establishes new standards for police seeking mental health care and also new rules for law enforcement accountability is set to become law in Connecticut soon, after passing the General Assembly this session.
Republicans unanimously voted against the bill.
Farmington police Chief Paul Melanson was one of the chiefs who advised lawmakers—including one of its main advocates, Senator Gary Winfield—on the bill.
“We were very appreciative of Senator Winfield to allow us to participate in this and to have a voice,” Melanson said, “and to meet and discuss our concerns and to address in the bill in certain way. Do we believe the bill is perfect? Absolutely not.”
Melanson said that an earlier version of Senate Bill 380, An Act Concerning Mental Health Care and Wellness Training and Suicide Prevention for Police Officers, ran the risk of a constitutional violation when it came to officers and use of deadly force, one that’s been backed by the 1989 Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor.
It created the standard of “objective reasonableness” according to the officer’s perspective during the incident rather than a due process standard.
The bill that passed now requires officers to submit a preliminary report when use of physical force results within five days following the determination of the cause of death. Additionally, each law enforcement unit will have to prepare and submit an annual use of force report to the Office of Policy Management’s Division of Criminal Justice Policy and Planning. Information like the person’s race, gender, type of injury, and how many time the officer used force on the person must be included in the report.
This marks a shift to a more centralized tracking of use of force incidents across the state, something that there is no national standard or database for.
Melanson said every department routinely tracks use of force.
“The numbers will bear out that we make millions of contacts with people in the state of Connecticut as police officers and rarely use force,” Melanson said. “The numbers born out will only support the professionalism of policing in Connecticut.”
In a statement, David McGuire, the executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said that the bill will create a higher level of accountability and transparency.
“Information is power, and this transparency bill is a necessary first step toward placing power over police squarely where it belongs: with the people. No one should die or be harmed at the hands of police, and police should not be able to hide the number of times they hurt, kill, or threaten people,” McGuire said. “Transparency about police uses of force will not bring back people killed by police violence, but it is a critical tool for exposing police violence and enabling Connecticut to take democratic control over police.”
The bill will also require police departments to release dash and body camera footage within 96 hours of incidents and generally prohibits officers from firing into moving cars.
The amendment—added after police shootings in Hamden and Wethersfield—also establishes a task force for transparency and accountability and requires the Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) to study and review police officers who choose to use their firearms during a pursuit.
“Use of force in Connecticut by police officers is minimal, it’s absolutely minimal,” Melanson said. “However, when it does happen, it absolutely needs 100 percent review by outside eyes, our state’s attorney’s office, so that we can make informed decision on whether it was appropriate or not.”
The mental health provisions faced less scrutiny than the high-profile amendment. If the bill is signed into law by Governor Ned Lamont, officers cannot be fired or disciplined for getting mental health treatment and surrendering their firearm during that process.
“We think that this is a good step that won’t penalize or punish the officer for getting the help that they need,” Melanson said. “We want to make sure that every police that needs help is going to get the help that they need.”
In the past, Melanson said, the prevailing stigma towards officers who sought mental health treatment was that of weakness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty and nearly one in four officers have had suicidal thoughts.
According to the bill, officers who do surrender their firearm are required to undergo a mental health examination by a licensed mental health care provider before returning to duty. In the past, if an officer was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital, they were generally not allowed to possess a firearm, ammunition or Taser for six months after discharge. The bill changes that as long as the officer clears the mental health examination.
The bill awaits the governor’s signature.