HARTFORD, CT — The Senate unanimously passed sweeping police accountability legislation late Wednesday that would require the release of body- or dash-camera video within 96 hours of an incident upon request.
The bill, which was added as an amendment to other legislation, reshapes the way police release information on use-of-force incidents and fatalities by requiring certain details to be made public on request within a set period of time.
In the case of a fatality involving police, under the Senate bill the Division of Criminal Justice would be required to release a status report identifying the person who died and giving details of how they died within five days of the determination of cause of death.
Police will not be allowed to shoot at or into fleeing vehicles unless there was an imminent threat of death to another person. Police would also not be allowed to position themselves in front of a fleeing motor vehicle and must notify other agencies when they chase a car across city lines.
“I think this is a thoughtful approach, but I realize not everyone out there may be perfectly happy with this,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who pointed out that Sen. Kevin Witkos, a Canton Republican and former police officer, was in favor of the bill.
Witkos said the bill enhances police transparency and accountability.
“This allows police to do their work in a timely manner and review incidents but make those incidents available to the public,” Witkos said.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously after a five-hour discussion on providing benefits for police and firefighters suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was tabled.
The police accountability bill was sparked by recent police shootings in New Haven and Wethersfield that left one woman wounded and an 18-year-old dead, the bill’s sponsors said.
Several bills aimed at greater transparency after a 20-year-old man was fatally wounded while trying to escape New Britain police in late 2017 had all but died in committee by early April.
But Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, indicated earlier this month that the April 16 shooting — involving a Hamden officer and a Yale University officer who fired on an unarmed couple, wounding a woman — may lead to some form of the bills being resurrected by the end of session June 5.
In that incident, the officers believed the man, Paul Witherspoon, had tried to rob a newspaper delivery man with a gun on April 16. That belief was based on a 911 call.
A detailed search warrant released days later indicated that Witherspoon told police he was unarmed and was getting out of his car with his hands up as Hamden officer Devin Eaton and Yale University officer Terrance Pollock opened fire. Eaton fired 13 bullets, striking and wounding Witherspoon’s passenger, Stephanie Washington. Witherspoon has not been charged with any crimes.
Less than a week later, Wethersfield officer Layau Eulizier shot 18-year-old Anthony Jose Vega Cruz as the teen tried to avoid being pulled over for a license plate violation. Vega Cruz died a few days later.
Both shootings drew loud protests calling for the release of dash- or body-camera video — a practice that State Police and the state’s attorneys who investigate police shootings rarely allow until an investigation is complete.
The dash camera video released a few weeks later showed Eulizier running in front of the 18-year-old’s vehicle and firing shots inside as Cruz tried to flee.
The bill passed by the Senate would require that police release any body- or dash-camera video within 48 hours of the involved officer’s review, or 96 hours after the incident if the officer has not reviewed it. The incidents would have to involve potential disciplinary action.
The bill would add the use of chokeholds and pursuits to the list of incidents they must provide a detailed report on in addition to any incident that is likely to cause serious injury. Starting in 2020, the reports would be provided to state authorities with a summary of the race and gender of those involved, how the force was used, and any injuries suffered.
The bill also creates a task force to study police transparency and accountability and requires the Police Officer Standards and Training Council to study and review the use of firearms by officers engaged in pursuits. The state police would also have to adopt and update regulations regarding police pursuits every five years.
The bill still needs to pass the House before midnight June 5 before it can reach the governor’s desk for his signature.