Adjustments to Connecticut’s new police accountability law are among the issues the legislature’s Judiciary Committee may tackle in the coming year, Rep. Steven Stafstrom said Wednesday after he was re-appointed as the panel’s co-chairman.
Incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter announced in a Wednesday press release that Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, would remain the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Although Senate Democrats have not yet announced their leadership assignments, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, is likely to remain the Senate chair.
In a phone interview, Stafstrom discussed some of the legislation he believes may come up in the coming session.
Stafstrom said he expects the group to consider changes to the police accountability passed over the summer in response to the death of George Floyd and other Black men around the country.
Many police in Connecticut opposed the law, saying it put officers at risk and made them more likely to hesitate in dangerous situations where they are required to protect themselves or members of the public. Ahead of last week’s election, the bill became a largely party-line issue. Police unions around the state backed Republican candidates who opposed the bill over Democrats who supported it.
Stafstrom said he plans to seek legislation to clarify the law’s changes to police use of force policy. Police have argued that they have not been trained on the new standards of when force is appropriate.
“I have committed to taking another look at the language of that section to figure out whether we can make it clearer,” Stafstrom said. Lawmakers may also adjust the timing of the changes to “give some more comfort to officers to make sure they understand it and … feel they’ve had sufficient training on the use of force policy.”
Winfield agreed the panel would be looking at the timing of the use of force provisions but he said the change was likely to make officers uncomfortable even with time and training.
“That comfort is never going to come for the initial officers that go through this,” he said. “There’s a certain discomfort that’s built into change.”
Although Stafstrom said he will “entertain reasonable proposals” to tweak the law, he expects to leave intact most other elements of the bill, especially a section limiting officers’ ability to search motor vehicles during traffic stops.
“The data shows very clearly that those have been proven to be tools for racial profiling and are disproportionately used on people of color,” he said. ”As we’re trying to respond to calls for equity, justice and change, I don’t think going backwards on that provision of the bill would be useful.”
Stafstrom said one of the most pressing matters for the committee will be changing state law to better allow the Judicial Branch to conduct its business around COVID-19 restrictions. The pandemic has highlighted ways in which the court system is antiquated. Statutorily-required in-person hearings can be made remote. The court process can be made cheaper and more streamlined, he said.
“There’s an old adage of ‘from every crisis comes opportunity,’” he said. “It may not be the most ‘sexy’ bill to ever come before the Judiciary Committee but I think we will have a robust discussion of court operations and how the legislature can help the branch be more nimble.”
The Judiciary Committee is also expected to consider the legalization of recreational marijuana in the coming year. Stafstrom said he supports the effort.