An ambitious legislative attempt to reset Connecticut’s policing standards, training and culture in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by police was met Friday with a mix of furious pushback from police officers complaining of a political overreaction to measured critiques by others in law enforcement who say they are ready to embrace change.
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A hearing conducted via Zoom videoconferencing by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee attracted written and oral testimony from hundreds, but it perhaps drew the strongest response from a police profession suddenly on the defensive, rocked by nationwide demonstrations against police bias and violence toward Blacks and other minorities.
“We feel it is a knee-jerk reaction,” said Sgt. Alexia Castro, the president of the police union in Naugatuck.
Castro is a Puerto Rican woman engaged to a Black man, also a police officer. She said they became police officers to be agents of necessary change in policing, but they see the first draft of a police accountability bill as punitive, stripping officers of qualified immunity against lawsuits and establishing unrealistic standards for the use of force.
The case for change has been made in the streets, at quiet vigils and raucous demonstrations focused on Floyd and the deaths of other Blacks at the hands of police. The details — what precisely to do, and how to do it — are evolving in a bill drafted by the Democratic co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, with input from ranking Republicans.
Without offering specifics, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, one of the co-chairs, said revisions are certain.
The hearing was unlike any other, conducted in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that forced the closure of the State Capitol in March, effectively ending the 2020 session of the General Assembly. It opened at 10 a.m. and was scheduled to end 12 hours later. CT-N, the public access channel that is now the only public window into the Capitol, was carrying it live.
Stripped of the theater that often comes with packing hearing rooms, the hearing was more of a conversation. Witnesses testified from living rooms, and legislators watched and listened remotely. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a co-chair, seemed to be outside. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, questioned a police chief from her kitchen.
Winfield gently protested when one white woman accused the lawmakers of overreacting to a single incident of police violence. Winfield, who is Black, said he became an activist after the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, one of the earliest incidents of police violence captured on video.
“It’s not just an issue when someone is killed,” said Winfield, who has sponsored other police accountability legislation. “This is an issue about how power is given, how power is given and how it is used.”
While some white witnesses say police feel under siege, Walker reminded them that their perspective is not that of a person of color. Walker is one of New Haven’s most prominent civic leaders, a longtime lawmaker and co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. Her father was a well-known pastor. Walker is an educator. She is Black.
She described being stopped by police who demanded to know if the car she was driving was hers. Her car carried legislative plates, and the stop occurred in her own district.
No police officer defended how the Minneapolis police treated Floyd, nor the experiences of Walker or other black lawmakers who shared stories of being stopped by police for reasons unclear. But they challenged the sweep and details of the bill.
Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a former police officer, said he was alarmed at stories told by Walker and others about questionable motor vehicle stops, but believes the bill as proposed is no solution.
Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart, the president of the police chiefs association, praised the incentives in the bill for departments to equip officers with body cameras. Less than half of the police in Connecticut have them, he said.
In response to questioning, Stewart also said he supports a provision that would allow the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, widely known as POST, to decertify officers who fail to meet accepted standards. That change could limit the ability of labor arbitrators to reverse dismissals or other disciplinary actions.
“We certainly support that end of it for a variety of reasons,” he said.
Prosecutors’ role in holding police accountable
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, the first witness to testify, supported a provision creating an inspector general in his office who would lead a team responsible for investigating deaths in police custody. They would prosecute any cases where they determine an officer used or abetted unjustifiable force, and make recommendations to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council regarding suspension, renewal or revocation of an officers’ certification.
Currently, state’s attorneys conduct probes whenever a person dies in police custody, a system that has yielded just one criminal charge out of 76 cases since 2001.
Colangelo supports creating an independent unit, but suggested lawmakers create a third deputy chief state’s attorney to head the unit, potentially making them more independent and shielding them from being fired. He also proposed expanding the scope of the inspector general’s authority so they can determine whether officer was violating policies or procedures, and make recommendations on decertifying or disciplining officers to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council and chiefs of police.
He suggested the inspector general be in charge of a staff of about 10, so they can handle the roughly 14 cases referred to them each year. He estimated the cost of salaries would total about $1.9 million.
The potential loss of qualified immunity
Police uniformly opposed ending officers’ qualified immunity in state courts, a protection common throughout the U.S. One section of the bill proposes creating a new legal path in state court for people to file lawsuits against police who violate their rights.
“If this portion of the bill is passed, police officers would fail to act when necessary for fear of being sued,” said Andrew Matthews, a retired state trooper representing the Connecticut State Police Union.
He suggested that officers would leave their job or reduce the extent of their interaction with members of the public.
“Once you start telling officers that they’re going to be potentially financially responsible for something they’re doing for you, as the employer, I think that people will reconsider and go elsewhere to other professions, if they can leave,” Matthews said.
Longtime activist Barbara Fair immediately followed Matthews, providing an immediate rebuttal.
“We’re tired of police trying to be the victim when they’re abusing and killing people,” she said. “If an officer is doing his job, doing it correctly, then they will not have to worry about any liability.”
Other officers complained that proposed new standards for the use of force would make officers hesitate. Jason Cassavechia, a state trooper for 20 years, warned that the bill would make police officers second-guess themselves when they’re in dangerous situations.
“If there is any legislative party that has not attended a shoot/don’t shoot drill, they shouldn’t be voting on this critical issue,” he said in his written testimony.
Benjamin M. Hoffman, a police supervisor, said the proposals would threaten public safety, lead to more injuries of police and those they interact with and be a financial drain on cities and towns left to foot the bill for officers who violate people’s rights.
“I’ve watched the morale of officers throughout the state decline over the last decade,” Hoffman said. “The number of officer suicides in 2019 greatly outweighed that of line of duty deaths nationwide.”
But others asked only that some decisions be delayed, giving them an opportunity to be part of a longer conversation.
“The current climate has dictated that policing as a whole needs change. This change should lead to positive outcomes for our community, our state and our country, but the actions of the few should not bar us from being a part of the conversation,” Amanda Devan, a police officer from Waterbury, wrote in testimony. “We are simply asking that you vote against the proposed bill as it stands in order to provide a fair opportunity for all to engage in meaningful dialogue where a positive solution may be reached.”
Melinda Rose, an Ivorytown resident and supporter of Black Lives Matter, said members of the state’s Black communities are overwhelmingly in support of defunding the police, shifting the funds from police departments toward their communities, educational opportunities, health care and social services.
“I am afraid that this bill is moving our state in the wrong direction, away from these asks and closer to just appeasing the public without creating real change,” Rose said in her written testimony. “This country has a long history of incorporating ‘trainings and certifications’ (which cost MORE money), requiring more equipment such as body cameras or switching away from ‘military-grade equipment’ (which costs MORE money), conducting more hearings (again which costs MORE money), and more (as are all included in your bill) and ultimately do not cause lasting change.”
Rose proposed cutting some percentage of police budgets each year and reinvesting that money in creating non-police crisis response teams, banning police from using assault-style weapons and mandating cops get more training in anti-racism and de-escalation, and less on combat.
The ACLU of Connecticut broadly came out in support of the bill, but said it was a start, not an endpoint.
Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director, praised the measure for its limitation on qualified immunity and its demilitarization of police departments across the state. He proposed expanding a section that would criminally charge officers who don’t intervene when they see a peer inappropriately using force to include a duty to intervene when a fellow officer performs an illegal search.
“Police violence happens in Connecticut, especially to Black and Latinx people. People are in the streets across this state because it happens here, all too often,” Medina said in his written testimony. “This bill contains some important measures of police accountability and police divestment, and it merits support from lawmakers.”
West Haven resident Colleen Lord suggested parts of the bill be extended to correction officers. Lord’s son Robby Talbot was killed by correction officers at New Haven Correctional Center last year.
“He was a gentle and brilliant young man with mental health problems since childhood,” Lord said. “He should have been a patient instead of a prisoner.”
Mental health addressed
The proposed legislation has several parts that deal with mental health, including a provision requiring officers to undergo a mental health assessment every five years. It also allows law enforcement leaders to require their officers — including those newly hired — to submit to an assessment of their mental health.
The screener must be a board-certified psychiatrist or psychologist with experience working with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some advocates cautioned against this. Kathy Flaherty, executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said the provisions reinforce misperceptions of people living with mental health conditions, and further the misconception that people with mental illness are likely to commit acts of violence. She questioned whether requiring police officers to undergo mental health assessments is an evidence-based solution to police violence.
“You should know by now that screening, in the absence of adequately funding the mental health system and ensuring the development of the behavioral health workforce to address people’s needs, is a feel-good response that accomplishes little,” she said, cautioning that the provision could subject police to discrimination.
Flaherty also took issue with another part of the bill that tasks police departments with, within six months, filing a report to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council outlining the feasibility and potential impact of using social workers to respond to certain calls. Flaherty acknowledged social workers don’t carry guns, but anyone with the legal authority to commit someone to a psychiatric mental health facility against their will is complicit in a system that subjects marginalized people to violence and trauma.
She called on lawmakers to instead reduce the funds given to police and redirect that money to community supports and services that meet people’s basic needs.
“Psychiatric facilities, especially long-term state-operated facilities where people without private insurance end up, are not benevolent places,” Flaherty said. “They are institutions where people get segregated from society and face significant barriers to re-entry.”