(CTNewsJunkie file photo)

The position of Inspector General created in 2020 to investigate the use of deadly force by police is one step closer to being filled thanks to a bill that would open up the field of candidates to civil rights attorneys and federal prosecutors.

But it will take a vote in the House and the Senate and the signature of Gov. Ned Lamont before anyone will be able to apply. 

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said. “A lot of this involves getting the right person and making sure the office is well-funded. This is the next step, the question is can we create an independent office. Only time will tell.”

The Office of the Inspector General was created as part of the 2020 Police Accountability law passed after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Derek Chauvin, the officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes during an arrest, was convicted by a federal jury of second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter last week.

Advocates for police reform, including the CT ACLU had for years criticized the state’s process for investigating deadly police incidents, which was done by prosecutors that often had worked with multiple police departments. That process resulted in only one officer in more than a decade facing charges despite dozens of deaths during that period.

According to the law, the inspector general falls under the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, which runs the state’s prosecutorial system. However, it would operate independently, gathering evidence and statements to determine if an office was justified in using deadly force.

But the 2020 Police Accountability law currently requires the position of inspector general to be held by an attorney who already works within the Division of Criminal Justice which narrowed the field of candidates and drew concerns that the new unit would be unable to provide independent reviews.

The job was supposed to be filled by Oct. 1, 2020 but has remained vacant since the Criminal Justice Commission vote failed to nominate either one of the two prosecutors who applied for the position in a tie vote.

Earlier this year the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force recommended that the law be amended to allow people from outside the Division of Criminal Justice to apply.

The Judiciary Committee which crafted the Police Accountability Law moved this legislative session to change portions of the law that define who can be considered for the job and made other revisions that would require the chair of the Criminal Justice Commission to appoint the candidate in the event of a tie.

“Connecticut has been a little ahead of the curve in trying to figure out what’s best for police accountability and reform,” Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said.“There will be some trial and error, but I think people were willing to accept that to make sure we get it right.”

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Under the bill, the position would be open to any qualified candidate, whether or not they were employed by the Division of Criminal Justice. The bill also placed the responsibility for choosing the candidate with the chair of Criminal Justice Commission if a tie vote occurred and removed the Judiciary Committee’s role in appointing the inspector general.

The Office of the Inspector General will have to be housed at a separate location from the Division of Criminal Justice, according to the bill. The inspector general will be allowed to choose his own team including investigators, attorneys and support staff.

“The inspector general needs to operate independently and in a free and unbiased way,” McGuire said. “Without that independence, the person would be in an uncomfortable position. They need the latitude to do what they think is best, not what the Chief State’s Attorney wants.”

The bill also changes the process by which members of the Criminal Justice Commission are appointed as well. Under the legislation, Lamont will nominate candidates for the commission with the Judiciary Committee making the appointments. Current commissioners will be allowed to serve out their terms.

The bill was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee on March 29. It’s currently on the Senate calendar.