ctnewsunkie file photo
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (ctnewsunkie file photo)

State officials are questioning the creation of an independent office to investigate the use of deadly force as created by the police accountability bill that passed the House Friday.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill Tuesday.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, sought a legal opinion from Attorney General William Tong on the creation of the independent office within hours of the bill passing.

Fasano questioned the constitutionality of the office, which would be headed by an “inspector general” nominated by the state’s Criminal Justice Commission and appointed by the legislature to independently investigate deadly use of force and in-custody death incidents.

“The creation of an Office of the Inspector General has strong bipartisan support and is a proposal Republicans have suggested and advocated for,” Fasano said in a statement released after he sent Tong a letter seeking a legal opinion on the bill.

“I understand the proponents of this bill had the best of intentions in developing this section, however the language ultimately included in the bill related to the creation of the Inspector General was rushed and contained elements that conflict with the state Constitution,” Fasano went on to say. “This is what happens when legislation is rushed and written to garner votes, not to be sound policy.”

Fasano said the “unconstitutional” elements “could put provisions of the bill” at risk for “legal challenges” which would invalidate them.

The constitutional questions Fasano has include whether the office may be considered independent of the division of criminal justice and whether the newly created position can appointed by the legislature rather than the Criminal Justice Commission. He also wants to know “what impact is there, if any, if the legislature appoints someone who is not currently a state’s
attorney employed by the Department of Criminal Justice?”

Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo says he’s in favor of the concept of an independent body to investigate deadly use of police force incidents and in-custody deaths. However, Colangelo said he has concerns about how the proposed investigatory unit would be staffed and organized. He also questioned whether it would run afoul of the state’s Constitution.

According to Colangelo and Fasano, only prosecutors working in the state’s Division of Criminal Justice have the authority to prosecute cases in Connecticut and the Criminal Justice Commission can appoint only prosecutors and other attorneys “as prescribed by law.”

“I want this to work, I think it’s a good idea for the state and for the people of the state,” Colangelo said. “But without the proper staffing, it’s not going to work.”

Fasano asked Tong to issue an opinion as quickly as possible as the vote on the bill in the Senate is looming.

The issue of who investigates deadly use of force incidents in the state of Connecticut has been a rallying point for advocates of police accountability for years after several highly publicized deaths and few prosecutions of officers who have been involved in deadly incidents. 

According to current state law, Colangelo’s office assigns a state’s attorney from a different jurisdiction to investigate with the help of a State Police Major Crime Unit also from a different jurisdiction.

There have been 78 use-of-force or in-custody death investigations done by state’s attorneys since 2001. Only one has resulted in an officer’s arrest – which occurred in the past year after a Hamden officer shot a woman who was in a vehicle he thought had been used in an attempted robbery of a New Haven convenience store. The woman survived. Her boyfriend, who was the driver, was not charged with a crime.

The investigations into the deadly use of force in some cases took years with family members of the deceased person receiving little information.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, was able to get legislation passed in 2015 and 2019 bringing more transparency to deadly use-of-force investigations including the requirement that any dashboard or body camera videos must be released within 96 hours of an incident.

But it wasn’t until the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25 that Winfield was able to get statewide support to craft legislation that would redefine the way policing is done in Connecticut.

HB 6004 which passed the House Friday calls for training in the use of de-escalation, requires police to undergo regular drug and psychological testing, and adds provisions allowing the Police Officer Standards and Training Council to “decertify” officers accused of wrongdoing.

One key aspect of the bill creates an “inspector general’ who would investigate deadly use of force and in-custody death incidents apart from the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office while administratively under the Division of Criminal Justice which Colangelo heads.

Colangelo says he is in favor of having an independent body investigate deadly use of force and in-custody deaths. But he said the way the proposed law is written, the Inspector General would only have a staff of four to investigate and to do many functions that were previously done by a State Police Major Crime Unit.

“Under the new law, Major Crimes would do the crime scene but they wouldn’t do interviews, search warrants, tracking down video or tracking down records,” Colangelo said. “They would only be at the crime scene to gather evidence.”

In order for the independent investigatory body to work, it would need a lawyer in addition to the inspector general, a chief inspector, six inspectors, a paralegal and a forensic analyst at a cost of $1.1 million, Colangelo contends.

It would cost another $100,000 to rent office space and a secure place to store vehicles impounded in connection with the investigations, he said.

“I don’t have the existing staff to do this,” Colangelo said. The Inspector General would only be connected to the Division of Criminal Justice administratively but would be independent of Colangelo’s supervision.

Under the proposed law, the Inspector General would investigate fatal use of deadly force incidents, non-fatal use of deadly force incidents, in-custody deaths at any police department in the state and in-custody deaths for those who are being held by the state Department of Correction.

In 2019, 24 deadly use of force and in-custody deaths investigations were done by state and municipal police and the DOC, Colangelo said. There were at least 19 similar investigations in 2018, he said.

“I don’t know how they are expecting the person to do the job,” Colangelo said.