For both supporters and critics of a landmark police accountability bill, Monday was a day of rallies, press conferences and last-minute lobbying in advance of Tuesday’s vote in the state Senate.
The legislation cleared one potential roadblock when Attorney General William Tong announced he would not issue a legal opinion on the constitutionality of a provision in the bill that would empower an inspector general to investigate cases of misconduct and abuse of power.
But following an informal review, Tong said he is comfortable that the legislation does not violate the state constitution.
Tong, a Democrat, said he has “serious reservations” about providing a formal opinion on a matter that’s the subject of active debate in the legislature. The House of Representatives passed the bill early Friday morning on a mostly party-line vote after nearly eight hours of often emotional debate.
Tong also said he cannot issue an opinion on a complex constitutional question so quickly. Len Fasano, the Republican leader in the state Senate, requested the ruling on Friday, following the House vote. Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo hsd also raised concerns about the inspector general’s position.
The sweeping bill would overhaul training, ban chokeholds, require body cameras for all officers for the first time and make it easier for citizens to sue individual police officers in state court.
If the bill is approved by the state Senate, it heads to the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont, who has endorsed the legislation.
Critics, including police officers, police chiefs, police unions and Republican members of the legislature, say one of the bill’s provisions — the loss of qualified immunity that would make it easier to file lawsuits in state court against municipalities and police officers — would hinder the ability to recruit, hire and retain qualified officers.
Hundreds of law enforcement officials have rallied at the Capitol and across the state in recent days, seeking to kill the bill. Others have flooded the phone lines and email inboxes of elected officials, expressing their displeasure.
But supporters said those opponents are misinformed.
“This bill is not an anti-police bill,” Scott X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP branches, said at a news conference Monday morning. “This bill is designed as a solution to eradicate police misconduct. This bill focuses on bad police. If you are a good police officer this bill brings no harm to you.”
Esdaile and other speakers said critics of the legislation misleading the public. “We are ... seeing some very bad scare tactics being used,‘' he said. “And individuals that are elected officials being threatened.”
Citizens whose rights have been violated or have been mistreated by the police have long been able to sue for damages in Connecticut. There have been state laws on the books for decades establishing procedure for such actions and when — or if — municipalities are obligated to indemnify the officers. Because those lawsuits usually involved allegations of federal civil rights violations, they are typically transferred to federal court.
The accountability bill under consideration by the legislature would amend state law to create a new cause of action under which those claiming police abuse can sue in state court.
Currently, municipalities and their employees are immune from damage awards on the basis of “all discretionary acts,” which are those acts that no “city charter provision, ordinance, regulation, rule, policy, or any other directive require[ed] the [defendant] to act in a prescribed manner.”
The legislation switches out the existing broad standard for a slightly narrower one, which is borrowed from the federal qualified immunity standard, and would create an opening for some police abuse cases from moving forward in state court.
Mel Medina, a policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said much of the debate has focused on the financial implications of the measure.
“There’s been a lot of conversation of professional liability,” he said. “That’s not the right question. But legislators are more comfortable talking about dollars and cents and not the real conversation: people dying at the hands of police. ... This is ultimately about giving families redress and saving lives.”
The bill has faced an intense lobbying effort from police unions, but advocates for the legislation urged state senators to resist political pressure.
“We’re going to take note of everyone” who votes no on the bill, said Bloomfield Mayor Suzette DeBeatham-Brown. “Senators, I call on you today. I call on your moral compass, to realize it’s time for racial equity. We are not asking for anything we do not deserve.”
This isn’t the first time the Connecticut legislature has considered proposals to address police misconduct and make law enforcement officials more accountable to the public.
But following a national outcry over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the flurry of protests against racial injustice worldwide, the bill gained momentum.
“As the father of two Black boys, I’ve had some heart-wrenching conversations about the realities of justice and racism in this country and, quite frankly, about how to stay safe in Connecticut when dealing with the police,” state Treasurer Shawn Wooden told reporters. “Let us come together and make meaningful change now.”
Courant Staff Writers Edmund H. Mahony and Nicholas Rondinone contributed to this story.
Daniela Altimari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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