Policing is about to change in Connecticut. But the question before the Police Accountability Task Force is what will that change look like.
During a two-and-a-half hour meeting Monday held against the backdrop of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that has sparked protests across the state and country, the task force agreed that policing in Connecticut needs to be revamped quickly.
But it’s not likely to be fast enough for state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who promised that he will be pressing forward with legislation aimed at increasing police accountability while reducing the chances of use of force incidents including deaths.
“The work of the task force is important,” Winfield told the group of police chiefs, legislators and experts in policing. “But you are going to see an effort to have something in legislation and the attempt is going to make that as comprehensive as possible.”
Legislation crafted by Winfield and passed in 2019 made efforts toward increased police accountability by requiring body camera footage to be released within four days of an incident that could lead to the discipline of an officer. The same law created the task force, required a review of police pursuits, and prohibited officers to get in front of fleeing cars.
But Winfield and others said the law didn’t go far enough to address issues such as the handling of investigations into the use of deadly force or sanctions for officers who violate policies. After nearly two weeks of peaceful protests throughout the state and at times violent protests across the country the group and Gov. Ned Lamont indicated they were ready to get down to work.
“Use of force, what we outlaw so we can add some clarity to that,” Lamont said of the issues he wanted addressed. “I think we’ve learned a lot, I learned a lot from the shocking picture of George Floyd and what that told us about policing and what that told us about racism, something we thought we were making progress on.”
Lamont later said during a press conference that he wanted the task force and the legislature to look at discipline for officers who were on scene during incidents where an inappropriate use of force was deployed and did nothing, like the officers who watched as one put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.
“What should the consequences be for them? Lamont said. The governor also wants a ban on choke holds as a part of any police accountability legislation Winfield puts forward during a special legislative session expected in the coming weeks.
Many members of the task force agreed that police culture needed to change and that police unions often prevented command staff from instituting real change by bucking disciplinary action.
The public is understandably upset, said Andrew Clark, director of the Institute of Municipal Planning and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University. The institute became involved in policing issues in 2011 when the East Haven Police Department came under scrutiny for racial profiling in 2011, Clark said. Clark was a part of a 2016 task force that made 2018 recommendations for police training.
“When you are talking East Haven in 2011 and the task force in 2016, you can understand the anger,” Clark said.
The actions of the officers who participated in Floyd’s death are “reprehensible, heart-wrenching and criminal,” said Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo in press release issued hours after he participated in the task force meeting. “There is nothing to defend. There is nothing to debate. I share in the sadness and outrage of those here and across the country.”
Colangelo vowed to improve relationships with the community and implement policy changes to promote accountability and transparency. “I look forward to having difficult conversations with legislators, city leaders, police chiefs and members of our communities to make much-needed changes to restore trust in our legal system,” he said. “We need to rebuild that fractured trust, and the only way to do that is to stake steps to ensure that every citizen of our state is treated with respect, dignity and fairness.”
Colangelo’s predecessor, Kevin Kane, was supportive of the current system of investigating deadly use of force incidents by assigning the cases to state’s attorneys in a different jurisdiction. Although the investigations resulted in lengthy reports, no officer has been charged criminally in the death of a suspect in about two decades even though more than two dozen people have died.
Advocates including the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union have been calling for a change in state law that defines whether an officer used deadly force appropriately and they have been calling for independent investigations.
Under current law, a state’s attorney only looks at the few seconds before the death occurs to determine if the officer used the appropriate level of force or if it was a criminal act. By that point, the officer is usually in a life or death struggle with a suspect, leaving little choice but to use deadly force. It is up to the officer’s police department to conduct an internal affairs investigation to determine if there was a violation of policy.
The entire system needs to change, including more transparency, an independent review process for incidents, better training, better wellness for officers and better de-escalation tactics, according to task force members.
“Internal affairs needs to go by the wayside,” said Sgt. John Szewczyk, former president of the Hartford Police Union. “We can’t have the police investigating the police. It needs an independent agency. You have people who go to the academy together and work side by side and then they are investigating someone.”
The state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council can put into place a prohibition on choke holds and neck restraints and requirements to intervene and reporting inappropriate behavior, said Milford Chief Keith Mello, the President of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
But police unions and state Labor Board actions can hamper attempts to deal with officers who may be subject of complaints or inappropriate behavior, Mello said.
“There has to be accountability at the local level,” Mello said. “Police officers have to know that discipline will be sustained at the labor board. We need to look at the labor systems. I understand due process, I understand the appeal process. Those are important but sometimes they get in the way.”
Officers need to understand that a physical altercation, while sometimes unavoidable, is not a victory, Mello said. “The use of force is actually a failure,” he said. “Success is not winning that altercation, it’s not getting into that altercation.”
The task force is charged with drafting a report for recommended changes. The report was supposed to be complete by January, but most of the members weren’t chosen until after January 1. Lamont said during the meeting that he wanted the report as soon as possible. The group will meet again June 22.