After days of state and national protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police, the co-chair of the Connecticut legislature’s Judiciary Committee is looking at ways to shore up police accountability here.
Sen. Gary Winfield was responsible for getting sweeping legislation passed in 2019 that made investigations into police use of force more transparent and created a task force to look into other avenues of police accountability.
Close to a year later, the task force has only met once and Winfield is reviewing his notes to refine what he’d like to address in an upcoming special legislative session possibly slated for late June or early July.
“There was a lot left on the sidelines and I’m trying to figure out what would be impactful,” Winfield said. “I’m looking at what we can do during the special session. My intent is to make sure the state is looking at it.”
But not everyone is coming from the same place.
“I don’t know what that means, ‘police reform legislation’,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday during his briefing.
He said he doesn’t know if it should be part of a special session.
“It’s just too vague. I don’t know what ‘police reform legislation’ means,” Lamont said.
Like leaders and police chiefs throughout the state, Lamont denounced the tactics Minneapolis police used that resulted in Floyd’s death as he was being held for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. An officer put his knee on Floyd’s throat for nine minutes while the black man said he couldn’t breathe, reports said. The officer was fired and later charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The death has prompted riots and demonstrations across the country including in Connecticut. The protests here have been mostly peaceful, which Police Accountability Task Force Chair Daryl McGraw said shouldn’t be viewed as an indicator that the state doesn’t have a problem with police brutality or people dying at the hands of police.
“Because the response hasn’t been looting or rioting, there’s a misconception that Connecticut is better,” McGraw said. “There have been people murdered by police in Connecticut. We’ve had seven deadly shootings by police in 2019 and 2020.”
McGraw said the video of Floyd’s death as he was on the ground with the officer’s knee to his throat brought back memories of his own interactions with police. “We’re the same complexion, we’re about the same height, we had the same experience; the only difference is that I lived and he didn’t,” McGraw said.
He’s hoping the task force can have a serious discussion on police accountability during a virtual meeting slated to take place June 8. It will be group’s second meeting since being formed late last year. By law, the task force was supposed to submit ideas for increased police accountability by January, but the group wasn’t fully seated and didn’t have their first meeting until the end of January. The next meeting was cancelled due to the threat of COVID-19 as legislative business was shut down in mid-March.
McGraw saw the unfolding tragedy in Minneapolis and the response in Connecticut and the rest of the country and decided that the group should meet again as soon as possible. “There are plenty of good police officers in our state,” McGraw said. “There are also those who at any given moment could put us in the state Minneapolis is in.”
Winfield and Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, have worked for years to change police accountability laws, said David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union. But their efforts have been continually hamstrung by the state’s police chiefs and police unions which have bucked change, McGuire said.
“There needs to be a radical change in the standard that’s used to determine whether there was an excessive use of force,” McGuire said. “There also needs to be an independent body that investigates use-of-force incidents and can prosecute police officers based on the findings.”
Over the years, a handful of legislators have backed changes in police accountability laws but few have passed, he said. “We’re calling for the legislature to step up and find a real answer,” McGuire said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter acknowledged that Connecticut has a lot of work to do when it comes to police accountability, but he’s going to let others like Winfield determine the direction of that discussion.
“I want to talk to Senator Winfield and others who started to work on that,” Ritter said. “I don’t wanna pre-judge what they believe the right process is. I want to respect their ability to come out with their ideas. They know they have a partner in me 100% on it.”
“I want to defer to folks on the timing and how they want to approach it,” Ritter said Monday.
The law Winfield got passed in 2019 changed the way information is released following any incident involving a serious use of force by police. The law reshapes the way police handle use-of-force incidents and fatalities by requiring certain details to be made public on request within a set period of time, and by prohibiting police from firing into fleeing vehicles.
It also included the creation of the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force chaired by McGraw.
“It is incumbent upon us as elected officials to do more,” Ritter, who is likely to be the next speaker of the House, said. “It’s simply horrific, it’s unacceptable. It makes me so, so sad that in our country in 2020, we’re living through this.”
When it comes to police accountability in Connecticut, the legislature has had mixed results.
State Rep. Joshua Hall, D-Hartford, said that when Porter tried to introduce legislation in 2017 that would hold police officers accountable for using deadly force, police departments in Connecticut came to the state Capitol to “intimidate her and those who supported her.”
“The question now is for my colleagues that are here today, is when we go back into session, what are we going to do?” Hall said last week at a protest. “Are we going to stand by and make sure it never happens again?”