After a marathon special meeting Thursday, members of the Criminal Justice Commission declined to name a nominee for Connecticut’s first Inspector General, whose charge is to investigate deadly police use-of-force incidents and in-custody deaths.
New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski and Bridgeport Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney C. Robert Satti Jr. were the only two candidates who were interviewed for the newly created position.
The six members of the commission with voting privileges came to a 3-3 deadlock on both candidates. Commission Chair Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald agreed to send both names as joint nominees to the legislature “so they can interview both candidates.”
“Of all the things that could have happened, this wasn’t the thing that I was expecting,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “We’ll have to have further conversations on what happens now.”
The nominee for the new position must be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee, which most likely would have happened during the regular session slated to start in January.
The commission also appointed Sharmese Walcott the next state’s attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford during the 10-hour meeting. The appointments were the only items on the agenda.
The inspector general was created in the police accountability law crafted by Winfield and the bipartisan committee leadership. The intent is to have an independent entity investigate deadly use of force incidents involving police. The law was passed in late July amid protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The inspector general, a deputy chief state’s attorney, will head a unit that is expected to include inspectors and legal staff that will determine if an officer is justified in using deadly force. The unit will also investigate all in-custody deaths which are now reviewed by the law enforcement agency where they occurred. All state Department of Correction in-custody deaths also will be investigated by the unit.
There were 25 deadly use of force investigations done by state’s attorneys in 2019, officials said. The investigations have become highly controversial since out of 81 deadly use of force incidents since 2000, only a handful of officers have been criminally charged.
The unit falls under the Division of Criminal Justice which is headed by Chief State’s Attorney Richard J.Colangelo Jr. but it will be considered independent to ensure the integrity of the investigations. In accordance with the law, commissioners were only allowed to consider candidates who are already employed by the Division of Criminal Justice.
Preleski and Satti are both longtime prosecutors in the division. Preleski is the son of a Bristol police officer and he was a Judge Advocate General with the U.S. Army Reserve. He has tried dozens of criminal cases in the Judicial District of New Britain and his prosecution of serial killer William Devin Howell resulted in six consecutive life sentences.
Preleski was appointed State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of New Britain in 2011 after the retirement of Scott Murphy, who is now a commission member. Preleski has conducted five investigations of use of deadly force involving other jurisdictions during his time as a state’s attorney. He has also prosecuted police officers, including two state police troopers accused of beating a man during a party.
Preleski acknowledged during his interview that under the current system of investigating deadly use of force incidents there was little room to examine how departments could do better.
“Historically there would be a very thorough investigation and then I would drop the report where it’s supposed to be dropped, usually with a police chief,” Preleski said. “I don’t think that’s adequate.”
He said he now approaches the investigations more “holistically” and includes comments on areas where the police could have improved.
“The reality is people don’t think they are being handled transparently,” Preleski said. “And they don’t think police officers are being held accountable.”
Although he had never conducted a use of deadly force investigation, Satti said he has been involved in the prosecution of police officers who have been accused of wrongdoing.
“I probably have been harder on law enforcement,” Satti said when asked if he would be able to separate his long-standing relationship with police if he were nominated for Inspector General. “If there has not been appropriate work, I call them on it.”
Satti has been with the Division of Criminal Justice for decades. He indicated during his interview that “transparency was important” and that he would have to change his “mindset” since in his current role as a prosecutor he rarely speaks to the press.
He also said he would defer comments on investigations to Colangelo – even though the unit was designed to be independent from the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. But at this point, Satti said the police accountability law doesn’t provide a “roadmap on what you would be allowed to do.”
The law stipulated that the commission had to nominate a candidate for the position by Oct. 1.
The position was meant to demonstrate that Black lives matter and to hold police accountable for injuring and killing citizens, said the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union who supported the creation of the unit.
But the organization questioned the tight timeline and the fact that only employees of the division, which are currently investigating deadly force incidents, were able to apply for the job. “This position was established because state’s attorneys have not held police accountable for killing or hurting people,” said Kelly McConney Moore, policy counsel for the CT ACLU.
Moore also questioned the limited pool of candidates and urged the commission to “change the law to get the best” candidates possible, even if it meant considering people from outside the Division of Criminal Justice. “Instead of business as usual, the CJC should be considering qualified candidates of all backgrounds,” Moore said.