Police Reform Measure Passes Connecticut House | Connecticut Public Radio
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Police Reform Measure Passes Connecticut House

Jul 24, 2020

The state House of Representatives voted Friday morning to pass an ambitious proposal to reframe the training, oversight and accountability of a police profession under intense scrutiny across the U.S. since a police officer killed George Floyd two months ago in Minneapolis.

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After beginning an overnight debate at 1:19 a.m., the House staggered toward the finish line at 9 a.m., with the Democratic majority managing to reach a fragile consensus. The measure passed on nearly a party-line vote of 86-58 and now goes to the Senate for a scheduled debate Tuesday.

With Republican opposition hardening and some Democratic support teetering, the measure’s backers worked Thursday and Friday to reclaim a narrative that had shifted away from the need to protect communities of color from police bias to Republican assertions that the bill would endanger police officers and expose them to frivolous litigation.

“The bill before us is not anti-cop,” said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who explained the bill to the House as the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “We understand that change is hard, but oftentimes, change is also necessary.”

A Republican amendment that would have stripped the bill of language limiting the qualified immunity against litigation now enjoyed by police officers failed on a rare tie vote, 72-72. The loss complicated chances for passage, since striking the language would have eased concerns of some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Black lawmakers were shut out of the first three hours of the debate as Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, the ranking Republican on Judiciary, quizzed Stafstrom in grinding detail about legislation drafted after extensive discussions by Stafstrom, Rebimbas and their Senate counterparts.

Rebimbas challenged Stafstrom on a key provision that would standardize training for police, requiring all courses to adhere to the standards set by POST, the Police Officer Standards and Training Council. POST would have the power to revoke a police officer’s certification, effectively barring them from the profession.

Officers decertified by POST would be fired by their police departments, Stafstrom said.

The council could also suspend an officer for up to 45 days.

Rebimbas, the only Republican to speak in the first five hours of the debate, said the bill was empowering POST without legislators first determining if the POST standards were superior.

“We don’t know this information, but yet we’re making a major shift decision to tell them, ‘You now need to be certified through POST. Can’t tell you whether or not the training is better, different, because we don’t know,'” Rebimbas said.

The GOP strategy shifted after 4 a.m., when Rebimbas proposed the amendment to strip the 46-section bill of two sections that would have changed the qualified immunity enjoyed by police officers. It opened the door to comments by members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

“We’re talking about police accountability and bad cops,” said Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, a civilian employee of a suburban police department.

Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a police officer in the community he represents, said fellow officers have pressured him to vote with them, not the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

“I’ve been followed from police officers to let me know I’m still part of the union, to let me know that I should be careful,  and to let me know that I should watch what I say,” Nolan said. “I speak loudly to police officers that are doing good. We are proud of you.. We like what you are doing in our communities. But we have bad apples.”

“Enough is enough,” said Rep. Joshua Hall, D-Hartford, an officer in the Hartford Federation of Teachers.

Members of the caucus urged their white colleagues to view the issue through their eyes and their lives.

“Think about us,” said Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport. “These are our stories.”

Rep. Pat Wilson Pheanious, D-Ashford, the former state commissioner of social services, asked them to imagine the fear she feels for her husband and her son every time they leave the house.

“There is no justice when there is no accountability,” she said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, urged his caucus to reject the GOP amendment, saying the bill set a standard for limiting immunity in state law similar to the existing standard in federal cases — misconduct would have to be “malicious, wanton or willful.”

The bill would make sweeping reforms aimed at holding police accountable for misconduct, answerable to a new inspector general and local civilian review boards. It sets new standards for the use of force and limited the ability of police to search vehicles during the motor vehicle stops.

According to research  by the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, Black and Hispanic drivers are much more likely than whites to be pressed for permission to consent to a search, and inspections of vehicles yield contraband less than 20% of the time. Police are more likely to find illegal items through a search based on probable cause.

Officers currently can  use deadly force when they hold a belief deemed objectively reasonable. In the new proposal, authorities could only use deadly force when they had exhausted all reasonable alternatives, reasonably believed the force creates no significant risk of injury to a third party and reasonably believed such use of force to be necessary.

When determining whether an officer acted reasonably, officials would consider whether the person killed had a deadly weapon, and whether the officer either heightened or attempted to de-escalate the situation. Officers who witness their peers acting in an “unreasonable” manner will be required to intervene or will be subject to the same punishment.

Chokeholds would be banned except when necessary to protect someone from the imminent threat of death.

The inspector general would have the ability to issue subpoenas so they can obtain documents and compel testimony from otherwise uncooperative municipalities or police departments.

The Police Officer Standards and Training Council could revoke an officer’s certification if they behave in a way that undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement, use unjustifiable or excessive physical force. The council can also suspend an officer for up to 45 days.

State police would be required to be certified through the council. Currently, POST certifies municipal police, not state troopers.

POST would also expand its instruction to include implicit bias training, to teach officers to recognize and mitigate unconscious biases against certain populations they are sworn to serve, and work with other state agencies to come up with a statewide policy for how police officers should manage crowds, a nod to the mass demonstrations throughout the state and country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Such a policy would also identify the documentation police must provide after a confrontation with a civilian in a crowd management incident.

The bill would require the use of body and dash cameras for all municipal and state cops. It is expected to cost at least $8 million in the first year, to buy the equipment and data storage services.

Earlier this week New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski suggested lawmakers mandate body and dash cameras for officers after he completed his report on the police killing of a Waterbury man in January. That officer had not been wearing a body camera, complicating Preleski’s investigation.