A controversial section of the police accountability law that removed “qualified” or governmental immunity for police officers who commit wrongdoing will likely have no fiscal impact on municipalities, according to a report compiled by the University of Connecticut Insurance Law Center.
Opponents of the law passed in late July contended that officers would be personally responsible for damages and municipal insurance costs would skyrocket if the legislation took away their ability to use governmental immunity as a defense.
But the authors of the report, Peter Kochenburger and Peter Siegelman, concluded that municipalities and police would not likely have increased insurance costs, since officers are already covered by their towns.
The pair also determined that officers will not incur any costs unless a judge finds that they acted in a wanton, willful or malicious manner. Municipalities are required to pay for an officer’s defense if any of allegations lodged against the officer fall under the category of “within their scope of duties,” the center said.
“We believe that the law does not significantly expand liability,” the authors said. “The law does create a new cause of action in state court, mirroring almost exactly the existing federal liability structure: but it does not expand liability beyond what is already illegal under current law.”
The report was drafted at the behest of the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, which was charged by the legislature with examining the potential impact of the law’s section on qualified immunity. The task force unanimously accepted the findings of the report Tuesday and will forward the document to the Judiciary Committee for review.
The conclusions in the report are “consistent with what we are hearing from our corporate counsels,” said Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, who serves on the task force.
Officers already can be sued in federal court for civil rights violations, according to the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. The change within the 2020 police accountability law allows citizens to file lawsuits in state court.
Municipal police will not be able to use “qualified” or governmental immunity as a defense unless they were acting in the scope of their jobs or objectively in good faith believed their conduct did not violate the law, the CHRO said in a report to the task force in August.
State police are state employees who fall under “sovereign immunity,” requiring anyone who wants to sue a state employee in state court to seek compensation from the state Claims Commissioner.
The law was drafted after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests throughout the state and country. It requires dozens of reforms including independent investigations of deadly use-of-force incidents, mandated periodic drug and psychological testing for officers and more civilian review boards.
But the law was panned by police and Republicans who trumpeted concerns that officers will hesitate in emergency situations if they fear personal liability.
“It’s a very bad bill,” said Danbury Sgt. John Kurpinski, the president of the 1,500-member Connecticut State Fraternal Order of Police in the days before it was passed. “We’re not against change, we’re not against reforms that make it better for our guys and citizens. This bill clearly doesn’t do that.”
The issue became so intense in late July that Gov. Ned Lamont suggested repeatedly that the “governmental immunity” section of the proposed legislation be stricken so that the reforms in the rest of the bill could move forward.
Some detractors have insisted that police will have to take out their own professional liability policies to avoid going into debt if they are sued.
But Kochenburger and Siegelman determined that there is very little market in Connecticut for police professional liability insurance and that officers are already covered by the government agency that employs them.
Officers also need to understand that even if they have their own professional liability insurance, no company will cover “wanton, deliberate, malicious actions,” Siegelman said.
“It’s like going to an insurance company and saying I want insurance because I want to burn down my house,” he said.