By Zane Khader
As many of you might know, a police reform bill passed the Connecticut State Senate on at 4:00 am on Wednesday morning and has received a lot of controversy in the papers. I’d like to go in-depth on each controversial provision and explain why these provisions are counterproductive and/or ineffective in our pursuit of social justice. The bill is titled “LCO no. 3471 – An Act Concerning Police Accountability.” Feel free to search it up and read the text; The Office of Legislative Research (OLR) provides unbiased context to the bill and is a useful tool if you aren’t familiar with the background behind the legislation. I encourage you, the reader, to do your own research and decide for yourself whether or not all aspects of the bill, as written, are wholly productive.
The first controversial provision, Section 30, which “requires a police officer to intervene and report another officer’s use of excessive force, subject to the penalties of hindering prosecution;” and “prohibits law enforcement units from taking retaliatory action against the intervening officer,” is seemingly productive in concept, but it is considerably held back due to the vagueness of language. The OLR interprets this section as requiring an intervention from a police officer who “objectively knows is unreasonable, excessive, or illegal.” What’s the problem with this? The vagueness behind the interpretation of “objectively” presents a massive problem. How is an individual police officer who is acting “subjectively” and in-the-moment supposed to judge anything “objectively?” If police officer A misinterprets police officer B’s action as what they deem to be “objectively unreasonable,” and takes physical action against police officer B in an attempt to “intervene,” then police officer A may have just jeopardized the safety of his entire unit because of his misjudgment on objectivity. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t encourage police officers to raise objections at actions they may find illegal, we definitely should, and the other parts of Section 30 that protect police officers that do intervene are certainly well-intended and should stay. But, the parameters need to be better set in a way that won’t needlessly jeopardize the safety of police officers in the field. Thus, the punishment of a “1st or 2nd degree hindering prosecution” for not intervening—thereby making the witnessing police officer a convicted felon—seems extreme, especially when we consider the aforementioned argument on objectivity (a police officer might, in the moment, not recognize that their fellow officer’s use of force is excessive). Besides, what qualifies as an “attempt to stop” or an “intervention?” Physical action? A word of caution? The language is too vague, and there is no reason to believe that the police officers who intend to abuse the law anyway won’t take advantage of this vagueness to create a loophole. Altogether, this section needs to be rewritten, clarified, or removed.
The other controversial provision (and the reason why everyone is so “up in arms”), Section 41, refers to the removal of qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.” They also write that “qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all,” so even if, under the current system, the claim against an officer is meritorious, it should still get resolved with qualified immunity in place. Therefore, the notion that removing qualified immunity will help bring police officers who abuse their power to justice is simply untrue. With qualified immunity removed, any citizen who feels their rights have been abridged (or even, say, an angry resident who got a speeding ticket for going 80 mph on I-95)—regardless of the merit of their claim—can force an officer to come to court instead of allowing them to serve the community and do their jobs. This will cause our court system to be even more backed up and incur more unnecessary legal fees. Worse yet, our already-existing shortage of police officers will get much worse when young, aspiring police officers realize that hurting someone’s feelings might cause them to spend hours in a courtroom. Qualified immunity is not the problem, at least not in the Town of Greenwich. If it is in other communities, then perhaps the issue should be addressed in those communities alone. Just as a doctor does not blindly prescribe all of his patients antibiotics for each of their specialized issues, let’s not assume that a blanket state-level “solution” will fix specific town-level issues.
AVOID WITH OR AGAINST
Beyond this piece of legislation, I’d like to make the additional point that viewing the discussion through the prevailing lens of, “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” does a disservice to both the complex nature of policy-making and to the average citizen. The situation is not “good vs. evil” or “pro-police vs. anti-police.” Let’s judge policy on its own merits and not on its suggested symbolism. No law will solve every problem, and viewing it as such is dishonest, especially when the bigotry we all despise is rooted more in culture than in law.
THE WAY WE SEE POLICE
Furthermore, we need to stop generalizing the “police” as an institutional enemy, saying phrases like “all cops are bad,” or advocating for legislation that attacks the very same police officers who have diligently served our town for decades; this is both disingenuous and entirely counterproductive in the pursuit of meaningful change. There ARE communities in this country (and state) where police corruption and abuse of power run rampant; there is no doubt about that. But, Greenwich, CT, is not one of those communities, and our officers should not be punished because of issues that exist in other communities across the nation. A top-down crackdown on police is considerably less productive (and less genuine) than a grassroots movement coming from the communities that they serve. Hence, for the last time, we need to look at these specific issues through the proper bottom-up lens of policy-making; only when our problems are addressed on a community-by-community basis will each issue get the specific treatment it needs.
There are 41 distinct sections to this bill, and only two of them are problematic. Let’s not ruin the entire piece of legislation because there are disagreements on a few points. This legislation, even without the two problematic provisions, is ground-breaking in ensuring our police departments and our communities are given the proper attention during these trying times. But, we still have a long way to go in the pursuit of social justice and we’re only just getting started.
Zane Khader, the immediate past president of the Greenwich High School student body, wrote this piece in conjunction with Joe Kelly, candidate, 150th District.