Police Reform: Too Rushed or Too Delayed?

 Easton Delegations Tackles the Question

Timing was the crucial question for Easton’s two state legislators, as they voted on police reform in the special session of the Connecticut General Assembly that convened last July 24 and adjourned July 29.

The state House and Senate adopted the proposed law enforcement measure and Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill, officially known as H.B. No. 6004, into law on Friday. 

The legislation, among its reforms, provides for an inspector general and municipal civilian review boards to oversee police behavior. 

The reform would also make it easier for municipalities to fire and decertify police officers. Disciplinary action by municipalities against police officers would become matters of public record.

On the contested issue of qualified immunity, the legislation would enable individuals to bring civil suits against police officers for alleged denial of rights, subject to a court’s determination that the police officer in good faith believed that he or she was acting lawfully.

In a party-line vote Wednesday, state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28th, was essentially asking for more time to design law-enforcement reform, when he joined his fellow Republicans in voting against the police accountability and transparency police measure. 

After a 10-and-a-half hour debate, state Rep. Anne Hughes, D-135th, urged her House colleagues to support the police reform bill as an emergency response, without delay, to the decades-long trauma of systemic racism and rogue police behavior. 

“I agree there is a need to act and many of the elements in the bill are good, strong proposals. But rushing legislation does not do justice to the level of attention this issue requires. The hastily pushed approval may create sweeping unintended consequences,” Hwang stated in a press release. 

Hughes told her colleagues, “You better believe this registration is rushed because that’s what you do in an emergency. You rush to render aid, to intervene. And our colleagues have worked hard for years to prepare for this intervention. I resent the implication that this is sloppy. What’s sloppy is waiting so long to intervene.”

The differences, then, between Easton’s legislators in the matter of law enforcement reform appear to come down to issues of process, not necessarily of policy, although the qualified immunity debate did reveal significant policy differences on the floors of both the House and the Senate. 

Section 42 of the police accountability and transparency act does offer the contending parties some potential relief on the immunity issue by providing for a task force to study the implementations of the police transparency and accountability act and to report to the General Assembly no later than Jan. 1, 2021 on “any recommendations related” to the immunity provisions of the reform bill.

This includes the “anticipated impact” that the measure might have “on the ability of a police officer or municipality  to obtain liability insurance.”

Contributor’s Note: This article continues a review of recently adopted law enforcement legislation. A third article will cover three other bills adopted by the state legislature dealing with absentee ballots, telehealthcare, and insulin costs. 

Special Session Bills Passed, Easton Delegation Agrees/Disagrees

The Connecticut General Assembly closed its special session this week having adopted four pieces of legislation, three with bi-partisan support and one with a vote along party lines in favor of the Democratic majority in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28th, and state Rep. Anne Hughes, D-135th, tracked that overall voting in their respective legislative houses. Hwang represents Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, Westport, and Hughes represents Easton, Redding, Weston.

The bill they disagreed on — Hughes yay, Hwang nay — was the most controversial of the four special-session proposals, and it took marathon, over-night debates in both houses before “An Act Concerning Police Accountability” was adopted.

The lightning rod in that legislative proposal was the section on qualified immunity for police from civil litigation.

The legislation would provide that individuals alleging that their civil rights have been violated by the actions of a police officer have a right to sue the officer with the only immunity for the officer being the court’s determination that the officer had an “objectively good faith belief” that his or her conduct did not violate the law. 

There is a provision in the bill that each municipality “shall protect and save harmless” the sued officer from financial losses and expenses resulting from such litigation. However, if the officer is judged to have committed a “malicious, wanton or willful act,” he or she is required to reimburse the municipality for its costs and expenses.

The accountability legislation would also create the new position of inspector general to investigate police use of deadly force. As well, the legislation would allow the formation of civilian review boards with subpoena powers in police matters. Disciplinary actions against police officers would be in the public record, and the bill has provisions making it easier for municipalities to fire and decertify police officers. That could prevent them from being hired by other municipalities.

Contributor’s Note: This is the first of three stories on the recently concluded legislative session. The three other pieces of legislation will be covered in a subsequent story.

Reporter’s Notebook: Legislators Respond to Outcry over Law Enforcement and Discrimination

Easton’s members of the Connecticut General Assembly have been moved by recent events and protests to take strong public stands on behalf of equal protection under the law for all people.    

State Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, Redding, Weston, has said that the public outcry over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis should be “be channeled by legislators for policy changes” because Connecticut has “its own legacy of deadly police violence and lack of accountability.” 

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R- Easton, Fairfield, Newtown Westport, has said that his “heart and conscience are with any individual who has experienced bigotry. I stand with you and will always fight for you against hate and violence. We need to find solutions to issues that have led to hate and violence.”

Hughes cited the fact that there have been 21 deadly outcomes in police encounters over the past five years, 16 of which have been resolved without criminal charges. Five cases remain open in investigations by state attorneys.

Use of excessive police force is not simply the work of “bad apples,” according to Hughes. “It’s how some police see their job. We need to take a hard look at the systemic level,” she said, with reference to an expected, upcoming special session of the state legislature.

“Progress toward trust and understanding must be the goal. We all need to collaborate to find solutions,” according to Hwang. He cited as an example of collaboration his co-sponsorship last year of legislation that among other things requires the police to release body or dashboard videos within 96-hours when requested in use-of-force incidents. 

The most recent incident involved a 27-year-old man who was fatally shot in April outside his mother’s home as a police SWAT team was assisting the Department of Correction in serving a violation of parole warrant. No weapon was found on or near the victim. His death is still under investigation. The four officers who opened fire on the victim are on administrative leave.

In January, a state police trooper shot a 19-year-old West Haven man seven times after chasing him on a stolen vehicle charge. Camera film showed the trooper firing through a closed driver-side window of a car that was blocked by state police vehicles. The trooper claimed that the suspect had a knife. A state attorney is conducting an investigation of the incident with inspectors from the Division of Criminal Justice having been added after officials removed state police detectives from the investigation.

Eliminating or reducing the qualified immunity police officers enjoy in civil lawsuits would be one way Hughes thinks justice would be better served. Advocates claim that the possibility of more civil-trial awards of monetary damages would motivate municipalities to limit the use of excessive force by police officers at least for budgetary considerations, if for no higher reasons.

“We need to implement procedures that emphasize empathy, mental health, and de-escalation. Law enforcement culture must be examined and reformed to align with science-based best practices and person-centered judgement of what is right and wrong, not if a person is good or bad,” said Hwang whose co-sponsored legislation, he said, also prohibits “shooting into fleeing vehicles without the imminent threat of death to another person.”

“I don’t worry about being stopped by the police. The system is for me,” Hughes said about the fear black communities have of the police and the frustration they experience in their search for justice. Now she says that “people who benefit from the system need to decide what to give in return” for those not being well served by law enforcement.

“I cannot presume to fathom the myriad of emotions and frustrations that so many African-Americans must be experiencing, and I cannot erase the incredible wrongs that have resurrected problems our country has battled since its creation,” said Hwang. “I can, however, offer an ear to listen, eyes to see and a strong voice to help move our country in a better direction.”