christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Sen. Gary Winfield (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

With days until a public hearing to consider police accountability reform, advocates claim the proposed legislation doesn’t go far enough while law enforcement leaders want to be part of discussions on its final form.

“The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association wants to work with the legislative leadership to ensure we have effective and meaningful changes that will benefit law enforcement and the public,” said the organization’s president, Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart.
An Act Concerning Police Accountability redefines several areas of policing in the state. It requires that all officers undergo regular mental health evaluations and that training policies be updated to include classes in de-escalation. 

The bill also changes the way deadly use-of-force incidents are investigated and changes the standard for determining whether an officer is justified in using deadly force.

“One segment of the public is going to say we’ve gone too far and a second portion of the public is going to say we haven’t gone far enough,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who crafted the bill with representatives from each of the caucuses on the Judiciary Committee.

The legislation will be the subject of a public hearing Friday. Since the state is still ensnared in the coronavirus pandemic, how the public will be able to provide testimony – either written or by a virtual meeting—will have to be ironed out, Winfield said.

Winfield expects opposition to provisions that change the standard for determining whether an officer was justified in using deadly force.

“I know we’ll be met with calls saying you can’t do it,” Winfield said. “But I think it’s going to have to play out.”

While hailing the bill as “making some positive changes,” the portions that pertain to the use of deadly force aren’t strong enough, according to the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union which has been championing independent investigations of these cases for years.

“As it stands right now it doesn’t do enough to end the epidemic of police violence in Connecticut,” said Kelly Moore, the organization’s policy counsel.

Moore contends that the bill needs a “strong use-of-force standard that’s very clear” and that the entire interaction between a civilian and an officer during an incident needs to be considered when determining if the deadly use of force was justified. Moore also said, “The use of force needs to be necessary and proportional to the threat.”

While the bill makes inroads, Moore said it should require an officer to exhaust all avenues to de-escalate a situation and to consider if bystanders could be harmed before using deadly force.

“There are other things that need to be considered,” she said. “If the person is in physical or emotional distress, that needs to be addressed a little more clearly.”

Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Chief States Attorney Richard Colangelo (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

Winfield and others within the legislature began talking to advocates to draft legislation to change policing as protests spread throughout Connecticut with people blocking portions of highways and staging peaceful rallies in suburban towns and cities following the death of George Floyd.

Winfield said he is prepared to defend the sections on the use of deadly force that build upon a police accountability law that passed last year. That bill required police to release any body or dashboard camera footage of a deadly use-of-force incident within 96 hours, but it did little to change the way investigations were handled.

At present, a state’s attorney can only consider what happened in the few seconds before a death occurs when deciding if an officer was justified in using deadly force. Any prior interaction between the officer and the person is not taken into consideration. Individual police departments determine if any violations of policy have occurred.

No officers have been charged criminally in the state of Connecticut in dozens of deadly use-of-force investigations that have taken place since 2004. Advocates from the CT ACLU have said that’s because the current law is inadequate and weighs more favorably toward police.

The proposed bill sets up an “Inspector General” who will only investigate deadly use-of-force incidents. The Inspector General will be nominated by Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo and approved by the legislature.

Colangelo will have the power to remove the inspector general, under the proposed bill. The ACLU is unhappy with that, believing instead that the Criminal Justice Commission, which confirms state’s attorneys, should have that power.

The Inspector General will be required to look at the entire incident and how the officer handled the interaction when determining whether the deadly use of force was justifiable under the new law.

A subcommittee of the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council is already working on drafting new guidelines for a state-mandated use of force policy, said Milford Police Chief Keith Mello who is the chair of the organization and also a member of the Police Accountability and Transparency Task Force created by the 2019 police accountability law.

“The goal is to provide a comprehensive policy based on best practices that protects the public and protects police officers,” Mello said.

Stewart said the CPCA is still examining all the details of the 65-page law but the group wants a seat at the table during any discussions on the version that will pass.

“We know change is coming,” Stewart said. “And we want to be a part of that change.”