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Where local legislators stand on police accountability measures

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday signed an executive order addressing police use of force and accountability.

It prohibits Connecticut State Police from using chokeholds and certain other tactics, mandates changes in use-of-force policies for state police, requires body cameras for every state trooper by Jan. 1, and puts an indefinite hold on state acquisition of military equipment from the federal government.

Lamont said in an email statement Friday he plans on "calling the General Assembly into special session during the month of July to address the issues of police accountability and expanding access to absentee ballots."

So, where do local members of the Connecticut General Assembly stand on different proposals?

The Day emailed legislators in our coverage area questions about where they stand on seven proposals, their thoughts on police funding, what they want to see taken up in a special legislative session versus a regular session and what Black Lives Matter protests they've attended.

Democrats responded in a signed op-ed, while Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, also shared his thoughts in a 52-minute phone call with The Day. Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton; Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich; and Rep. Brian Smith, D-Colchester, emailed individual responses to the questions as well, the latter four using some of the same language. Local House and Senate Republicans also sent a group response.

Democrats call for changes in de-escalation, staffing, licensing

Nine Democrats signed onto an op-ed detailing what proposals they endorse: Needleman; Nolan; Osten; Conley; Riley; Smith; Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Stonington. They said they spoke with activists, local elected officials, other state legislators, police officers and union representatives.

They support requiring improved de-escalation and crisis intervention methods, and modifying the conditions under which a police officer can use deadly force from times when it is "reasonable" to times when it is "necessary." In this context, de-escalation means using techniques that aim to prevent use of force.

The legislators advocated for requiring police departments to have mental health professionals and social workers on staff, which could be regionalized across departments, and believe they should be a part of deployment teams to facilitate de-escalation.

These Democrats also are pushing for the following requirements: that all law enforcement officers wear body cameras, that all certified law enforcement officers display a name badge and identification number on uniforms, and that an inspector general or designee provide oversight of any instance of serious police violence. Under current law, when police use deadly force, the chief's state's attorney appoints a prosecutor from outside the district where the shooting occurred, and one of the three Connecticut State Police Major Crime Squads is typically the investigating agency.

They want to see a professional licensing board be implemented for police, similar to existing boards for doctors and lawyers, and for this board to maintain a database on confirmed complaints against officers.

Osten and Smith said the badge/identification requirement, independent oversight board and professional licensing board are things that could wait for a regular session and public hearings, but they would like to see the rest tackled during a special session. Riley said he wants to see all of these changes made during a special session, that he "does not believe anything can wait."

The Democratic legislators also want to restrict local police departments from participating in the 1033 program, through which municipal departments acquire surplus military equipment.

They concluded, "Over the past several weeks, each of us has attended a peaceful rally, taken part in a community discussion, or talked with activists for racial justice. These are the changes we heard from the people out on the town greens across eastern Connecticut. We endorse these measures, and we look forward to seeing them enacted into law in either the summer special session or the legislative session to follow."

Local Democrats don't support public oversight of police contracts

Nolan, who serves as a New London police officer and is African American, provided his own responses before the group op-ed was sent.

Nolan said he would support the following: legislation making it easier for municipalities to establish independent civilian review boards, the creation of a public database of police complaints by department and officer, a mandate of body cameras, the addition of an independent inspector general in Connecticut, and restricting or ending use of the 1033 program. He said he supports allowing the public to have input, not oversight, of police union contracts.

Public oversight of the police union contract was one of the demands the social justice organization Hearing Youth Voices made in a petition, along with demanding that "New London Public Schools immediately sever their relationship with the New London Police Department." Activists around the country, including in New Haven, have called for removing school resource officers from schools.

But Nolan said he believes that a correctly trained officer in a school is important in "building relationships between youth and Law Enforcement."

Nolan also pointed The Day toward his June 13 Facebook post with his recommendations, most of which were included in the governor's executive order or the group op-ed. He also wants internal affairs divisions removed from municipal departments, so that police departments are not policing their own membership.

Needleman offered his perspective not only as state senator but also as first selectman of Essex, which does not have its own police department but rather a resident trooper's office. As first selectman, he negotiates the police union contract and is not sure what it would mean to have the public involved in that process. He doesn't think it would work.

If police are "repeat offenders of bad behavior," he thinks that should be available in a public database. Needleman thinks body cameras are a "good tool for accountability" but said there needs to be incentives or financial support for small towns to implement them.

He wouldn't "in a wholesale way" get rid of school resource officers, "because we've had too many school shootings, and I don't know if we have enough data yet to say that they actually impacted whether there's a school shooting or not, that they're a deterrent." Needleman thinks decisions on SROs should be left to local school boards.

He was most unequivocal in his support for restricting or ending the 1033 program, saying, "I think small towns getting surplus military equipment only creates the sense of a militarized police department, and I think that has created huge problems within the communities that they police."

He thinks the immediate focus should be on enhanced training, though he's not sure if legislation is needed to mandate this. Needleman thinks Essex "has hit a sweet spot with the coverage that we have," and he doesn't think Connecticut State Police are overfunded.

Osten wrote that she thinks state police "are horribly underfunded as to staffing levels, and that must change immediately, especially for the citizens here in eastern Connecticut, who rely more heavily on state police than they do for town police departments." Riley said state police "have been understaffed and underfunded for years, which has resulted in trooper mental and physical exhaustion and excessive overtime."

Osten, Riley, Conley and Smith each said they support all the proposals The Day asked about except allowing the public to have oversight of union contracts and removing school resource officers.

Osten and Conley each wrote that union contracts should continue to be negotiated between the union and town officials, though there "needs to be stronger language allowing for the termination of some police officers," and that SROs "serve a valuable function and can be a means of increasing positive contact at an early age with police officers."

Riley said union contracts should be negotiated "by the two parties with a specific emphasis on improved language for the ability to terminate for cause, the loss of pension benefits and the inability to work as an officer in the state again." He and Smith both said decisions on SROs should be left up to the local school board or municipality.

All who responded said they attended at least one Black Lives Matter protest or racial justice event.

For example, as of Wednesday, Osten said she has attended 10 racial justice rallies since May 29 and will be attending other rallies in the near future as they are scheduled. Needleman mentioned Sunday at least six events he attended, and Nolan said he attended Black Lives Matter protests in New London, Hartford, Groton and New Haven.

Republicans support increased mental health resources

Connecticut House Republicans spokesperson Pat O'Neil sent a statement Thursday morning that he said represented seven local Republicans: Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme; Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme; Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford; Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin; Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard; Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton; and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme.

"House and Senate Republicans from southeastern Connecticut are committed to participating in bipartisan talks that directly address excessive force and racial disparities in policing," they wrote, "and to offering reform-focused solutions to help ensure that reprehensible police conduct like the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis never happens in Connecticut."

They expressed gratitude to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council for quickly enacting the "long-needed reforms" of:

  • A new policy with a clear use-of-force matrix
  • A requirement that officers use de-escalation/calming strategies and/or verbal warnings when feasible
  • A ban on chokeholds
  • A requirement that an officer who has knowledge of unreasonable excessive force by another officer must report it and will not be subject to retaliation

These Republicans do not support defunding police, meaning they don't want to cut police budgets to reallocate that money to other services.

"The southeastern Connecticut Republican delegation cannot support proposals that defund police departments; crippling their law enforcement operations is not a viable way to enhance public safety or address the problems of systemic racism," they added. "Instead, increasing resources which focus on mental health training, more education on de-escalation techniques, and performing psychological evaluations prior to recertification should be discussed."

The representatives and senators said they will meet with community groups, police and members of the public in the coming weeks "to identify racial, ethnic, societal disparities in Connecticut's policing policies and to develop affirmative legislative proposals to eliminate them from our state."

In a statement released June 11, the Connecticut Senate Republican Caucus advocated for a nonpartisan inspector general to oversee investigations outside the Attorney General's Office, so the public is "confident that politics are far removed from any outcome."

Republican legislators also joined Black Lives Matter protests and marches.

Somers joined the Black Lives Matter march in Groton on June 7. Formica posted on Facebook about attending protests in Old Saybrook, Niantic and Waterford. Cheeseman also attended the Niantic rally, and McCarty the march in Waterford. Dubitsky attended the interfaith vigil in Norwich on June 10.

e.moser@theday.com

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