Hours after Attorney General William Tong declined to provide a formal opinion on the constitutionality of the police accountability bill, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, asked Senate Democratic leadership to put a vote on the bill on hold.
The bill passed the House early Friday and is on the agenda for the Senate’s special session Tuesday. Fasano didn’t specify when he wanted the legislation to come up for a vote.
“Attorney General Tong states in his response to my request that he cannot provide a legal opinion on such complex constitutional matters in such a short time,” Fasano said in a letter to Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.
“Lawmakers are being asked to vote on the same issue in the same period of time and make a legislative proposal state law,” Fasano said. “If there is not enough time for a formal opinion, how can there be enough time for the Senate to accurately analyze and vote on this bill without the needed legal guidance?”
The Senate Democratic caucus plans on moving forward with a vote Tuesday.
Although Tong declined to provide a “formal” response to Fasano’s request to have the portions of the bill related to the creation of an Office of the Inspector General to investigate deadly use of force incidents, the Attorney General said an informal review revealed the proposed law is constitutional.
“I am comfortable that the Inspector General provisions of HB 6004 are constitutional,” Tong said. “I am prepared to defend them in court should the bill be enacted into law as currently drafted.”
Hours after the bill passed in the House Friday morning, Fasano asked Tong to weigh in.
Tong said in his response to Fasano that he was hesitant to provide “a formal legal opinion” on a sensitive bill slated to come up for a vote Tuesday. But overall, Tong said he felt the portion of the legislation in question was in accordance with the state constitution.
“I must respectfully decline your request because I have serious reservations about providing a formal opinion on emergency certified legislation that is presently the subject of active debate in the General Assembly and that has already been passed by the House of Representatives in a special session,” Tong said.
“These circumstances are unique and your request unusual in its timing,” Tong said. “Therefore I must be careful not to prejudice or unduly interfere with legislative proceedings presently underway.”
Gov. Ned Lamont expressed his support for the bill during a press conference on COVID-19 Monday. Lamont said he believed that it was on its way to Senate approval when asked if he had been encouraging individual senators to approve the bill.
“I would approve it,” Lamont said. “I think it’s a good bill. It takes into account transparency and accountability, builds more trust between police and the local community, I think it’s pretty important. I think the House made it a better bill and I hope the Senate passes it.”
Fasano questioned the constitutionality of the proposed office which would be headed by an “Inspector General” appointed by the state’s Criminal Justice Commission and approved by the legislature to independently investigate deadly use of force and in-custody death incidents.
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo also questioned the constitutionality of the proposed unit.
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.” It is the independence of the proposed office—the cornerstone of the concept—that potentially poses the constitutional conflict.
“I want this to work, I think it’s a good idea for the state and for the people of the state,” Colangelo said late last week. “But without the proper staffing, it’s not going to work.”
For years, advocates for police accountability have sought to have the investigations into use- of-deadly-force incidents taken out of the hands of state police and prosecutors who often work with police on cases.
Under the bill, the Office of the Inspector General would investigate all deadly use-of-force and in-custody death incidents independently from the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. The unit would be under Colangelo for administrative purposes.
Colangelo and Fasano contend they support the concept of independent investigations. But both said they had concerns that the appointment of the Inspector General and the independence of the office from the Division of Criminal Justice would run “afoul” of the state’s constitution.
The bill, largely crafted by Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, passed in the House in a 86 to 58 vote after several hours of intense debate early Friday. Winfield was instrumental in the passage of police accountability legislation 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 Winfield was able to garner statewide support for further reforms following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd’s death generated protests throughout the state and country and calls for police reform.
In addition to independent investigations of deadly use of force, the bill 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.