The Police Accountability Bill

Did you know there is a special session of the legislature this week? It is not unusual for there to be a special session when issues arise of such importance they must be immediately addressed. Since the state legislature has not met since March because of the pandemic it is understandable that pressing matters would necessitate this special session.

Governor Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders have set an agenda for the special session of just four issues: capping the cost of insulin; extending the Governor’s telehealth executive order to January; voting by absentee ballots; and police accountability. These are the four most important issues facing our state according to the legislative leaders in Hartford.

Each of these issues is important and worthy of public scrutiny and open debate. In the case of An Act Concerning Police Accountability, we believe the legislature is moving too quickly and creating legislation that will be harmful to Greenwich.

Every police force, whether it is our state police or our Greenwich police, should always be looking for ways to improve their policing and community relations. Standards must change as times change. What may have been tolerated in the past is no longer acceptable today. Fortunately, our Greenwich police department has been at the forefront of creating community relations that are transparent and progressive.

The police reform bill in front of the legislature has many good elements to it, many that are already in practice in Greenwich. We support establishing an inspector general in the State Attorney’s office who would be responsible for investigating deaths in police custody. In fact, several years ago there was a proposal for inspector generals for every state agency to fight for transparency, and eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. We believe this is still a viable proposal.

We also support a mostly civilian Police Officers Standards and Training council (POST). However, we do feel there are some loopholes that need to be addressed for it to truly be effective. The POST and the Inspector General should be combined so that they both operate out of the State Attorney’s office. The inspector general should have subpoena authority, not the POST alone.

One part of the proposed legislation we cannot support, which would be very harmful for Greenwich, is the elimination of “qualified immunity” for police officers. Its removal would allow for police officers to be personally sued and held financially liable when anyone they arrest feels their civil rights have been hampered.

Taken to the extreme, if you get a speeding ticket and don’t like it, sue the officer who issued it and ask for $1,000,000 for mental anguish. The officer would be personally on the hook for the $1,000,000.

The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) initially worked with the legislature to try and create the best possible bill to improve policing around the state. They answered questions, made suggestions, provided testimony. And who was their opponent and major supporter of this bill – especially that removal of “qualified immunity”? The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association.

No immunity means more trials and that means more settlements from town’s like Greenwich and insurance companies and police officers and, of course, more lawyer fees.

The police chiefs are genuinely fearful of what this bill can mean for their departments. They believe, rightly so, that there will be an immediate blue wave of retiring police officers. They would also be seriously challenged to replace those officers with new recruits.

What twenty-something year-old is going to join a profession where every time he or she responds to a call, they have the potential to be sued? If they respond to a potentially dangerous call, will they hesitate a moment to weigh whether they should get involved if it could mean they could lose their home or car or savings in a lawsuit?

The immediate past, current, and future heads of the Police Chiefs Association have come out and unanimously asked that, at a minimum, the language ending “qualified immunity” be stricken from the bill. It is a powerful message they are sending.

We hope the legislature is listening.

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