By the time Gov. Ned Lamont signed the 2020 police accountability law on July 31, the New Britain Police Department had already adopted many of its reforms as part of an extensive policy review and rewrite years earlier, said Chief Christopher Chute.
“We had already banned chokeholds and almost all of the changes in the law were already implemented,” Chute said. “We only had to make a few minor tweaks. We were in really good shape when the law passed.”
As the anniversary of the passage of the law draws near, Republican legislative leaders contend that police still have major issues with the law.
“I’m seeing a lot of officers leaving, especially in municipal departments,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. “I’m seeing a lot of negative aspects to morale.”
But the legislation drafted by the leaders of the committee after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 was meant to be a blueprint for reforms that likely will take years to complete, Democrats said.
“I think despite what people might think, it’s going to take a long period to see a transformation,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, committee co-chair. “Police are frustrated. They feel they lost. That’s their language, that’s not how I look at it.”
HB 6004, which became the 2020 Police Accountability Act, changed the composition of the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council to include individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system and people from municipalities of varying sizes.
The council is responsible for training and certifying police officers and setting policy on both. Under the law, POST will issue an annual report on police efforts to recruit minority officers and the council must develop new policies on crowd control, require implicit bias training for officers and ensure that police disciplinary records are available for public view.
POST will also have more authority to take away the certification of officers who have committed wrongdoing under the law.
The legislation also created an Office of the Inspector General to independently investigate deadly use of force incidents and in-custody deaths, made body and dashboard cameras mandatory for any officer interacting with the public and allowed municipalities to create civilian review boards to examine complaints made against police.
Any tactic that restrains oxygen — including chokeholds and strangleholds — is banned under the law and police are required to undergo updated use of force training. Police also must submit to drug testing and periodic mental health evaluations to receive their three-year recertification.
During the legislative session that ended in June, lawmakers revised the law to open the application process for the Inspector General position to any attorney with three years of experience. The prior application process only allowed attorneys who were already working for the state’s Division of Criminal Justice to be considered for the job. Advocates called for an expansion of the candidate pool after the state’s Criminal Justice Commission failed in late September to appoint one of two state’s attorney’s who applied for the job.
The legislature also pushed back the deadline for the use of force training requirements until next year, allowing departments more time to train officers in the new policy guidelines.
“I can’t think of any specific benefits in this law. All the Republicans voted against it,” said Fishbein, who also pointed out that since the law came up for a vote during a special session in June 2020, it had no public hearing.
The law was one of the most comprehensive police reform bills passed in the nation during the turbulent time after Floyd’s death, said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.
“A year later, we are still very much in the implementation stage for some of the key provisions of the bill,” Stafstrom said.
Stafstrom went on to say that many portions of the law that were initially challenged by police have since been explained and addressed, such as the section that prohibits officers who acted outside of the scope of their duties from using qualified immunity as a defense in a lawsuit.
“We didn’t eliminate qualified immunity, it was a tweak to level the playfield,” Stafstrom said. “I think people figured out the sky is not falling as a result of the change we made.”
New Britain police officers are not fleeing in record numbers for any reason, Chute said. He’s currently staffed at 160 officers – five less than his budgeted number. “I have not heard of anyone having an issue (with the law),” Chute said.
The department will start the drug testing and mental health evaluations by the end of the summer, Chute said.
Officers have “embraced” the body cameras which were purchased with city funds this year, he said. “They have been very beneficial,” Chute said. “Not only does it increase the professionalism of our officers because everything they say and do is being recorded, it also puts the public on notice that all of their interactions with police are being recorded.”
The only drawback to the law as he saw it was the new use of force training policy which was supposed to go into effect in April, Chute said. “That was not a workable policy for any officer in the state of Connecticut,” Chute said. “I’m glad they changed it and now we are okay with it.”