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Connecticut House tackles legislating in age of COVID-19

It was a little spooky. The tally board instantly lit up Thursday in the Connecticut House of Representatives when the first vote was called — even though most desks were unoccupied and the vote buttons untouched. The lawmakers were not invisible, just socially distant.

For the first time in the history of the General Assembly, floor votes were cast remotely as lawmakers returned to Hartford for the first time since exiting the State Capitol in mid-March when COVID-19 brought much of government and commerce to a halt.

Legislators could log in to cast votes from their offices in the Legislative Office Building, the 1980s annex to the 1880s State Capitol. And, for the most part, they remained there, unless they wanted to debate one of the four bills on the agenda.

“The way this is going is sort of indicative of why Connecticut is doing the best in the country” on controlling COVID infections, said the deputy minority leader, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “I think generally speaking, the public gets it and so do legislators.”

The main order of business was a police accountability bill that was unlikely to hit the House floor until late into the night. Hundreds of protesters — many of them off-duty police unhappy at the prospect of losing qualified immunity against civil litigation — loudly greeted lawmakers in the morning.

But the Capitol was closed to the public, another first. The people could watch the people’s business, but only through CT-N, the public-access network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage on cable systems and online.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and his deputy speakers presided wearing masks. Face coverings were ubiquitous on both sides of the aisle, a sign they are less a political statement in Connecticut than a precaution, though many of the off-duty police officers went maskless.

Plexiglas shields trimmed in a dark wood matching woodwork in the House separated the House clerk and his small staff from the few members who ventured into the chamber.

“It’s still kind of surreal being back up here,” said Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, a deputy speaker. He and others struggled throughout the day with technical glitches.

One of the glitches was a discovery that any lawmaker who logged into the voting system from the LOB could not easily cast a vote if they came over to the House. The LOB system locked out their House chamber voting buttons. So, those members had to rise and ask the speaker to manually record their votes.

The Senate is scheduled to go through a similar process when it convenes Tuesday.

The House returned in special session for an agenda limited to four topics: police accountability; no-excuse absentee ballot voting in November as a COVID precaution; an extension of an executive order mandating insurance coverage of telemedicine during the pandemic; and an insulin cost-containment measure.

The bill extending insurance coverage of telemedicine, as ordered by Gov. Ned Lamont in an executive order due to expire with the end of the public emergency in September, passed on a vote of 145-0 in the early afternoon. No-excuse absentee balloting passed 144-2 about five hours later, at 6:29 p.m.

“It was a little bumpy, admittedly, to start, but I think we’re getting there. Some members are adjusting but we appreciate everyone’s cooperation,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “Look, we’re voting on a bill, so that’s an accomplishment.”

Candelora said he was pleasantly surprised that House members adjusted to working from outside the chamber.

“The members are more cooperative than I though they would be, so that’s good,” Candelora said. “These are 200-year-old rules that we are following that are all out the window right now.”

Police accountability measure hits snags

House Democratic leaders struggled Thursday to find a compromise capable of keeping its majority caucus united behind passage of a sweeping police accountability bill, a measure whose passage appeared to turn on the degree to which it limits qualified immunity for police officers.

Qualified immunity is legally complex and politically divisive, with angry police officers chanting outside the State Capitol that stripping them of that protection would be a betrayal to peace officers, while members of Black Lives Matter insist it is a necessary check on the worst of the police profession.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and a prominent member of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said he and other backers of the bill were struggling over whether they still would vote for the bill if the qualified immunity language was removed, even though it contains other substantial reforms.

On the east steps outside the Capitol, Sgt. John Castiline, the president of the Connecticut State Police Union, told a crowd of off-duty police officers that no one opposes removing unqualified officers from the profession, but the bill as drafted is harmful to all cops, not just the bad ones.

On-duty Capitol and Hartford police officers stood between a small group of Black Lives Matter activists and the larger contingent of off-duty cops and their supporters, most dressed in matching black or white shirts. Members of SEIU 1199, a union representing health care workers, occupied their own corner of the Capitol lawn.

Mike Oretade, a preschool teacher who is a leader of Black Lives Matter in the Hartford region, said limiting immunity will be a useful check on police power. “If we get rid of qualified immunity, cops won’t make the same sort of mistakes," Oretade said. “If we get rid of it, it’ll send a shockwave to other ares of the criminal justice system.”

Winfield hosted an emotional Facebook Live session earlier Thursday. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he talked about his struggle to make the state safer for Black and brown residents, and the times his life has been threatened for that work. He recalled how, in the closing minutes of last week’s public hearing, his son climbed onto his lap as he marked the end of the 12-hour listening session.

“While I know what this world is and what they can run into when they go out of the house, they certainly shouldn’t have to worry about the people who are supposed to be there to protect them, and neither should your children,” Winfield said of his kids.

He stressed that the bill was not just about police killing citizens they are sworn to protect, or disproportionately inflicting violence and trauma upon minorities and their communities. “This fight is about the power we have given them, and how we have allowed them to use that power,” he said. “This fight is about every single time that they use that power not for us, but against us.”

Legislators continued to work on the bill hours throughout the day. The main sticking point was the section that would create a new legal path in state court for people to file lawsuits against police who violate their rights. Currently, police can often avoid liability for actions if there is no state law or court decision that prohibits them from acting as they did. In other words, civil lawsuits in state courts are often dismissed because there are no state statutes that lay out how they are required to handle a particular situation.

Police officers have protested en masse, claiming the end of governmental, or qualified, immunity in state courts would make police unable, or unwilling, to do their jobs. They warned that officers would second-guess decisions in situations where they need to act quickly, and that those who could leave or retire from the profession, would. They also said it would hinder recruitment efforts, potentially undercutting another section of the bill that attempts to draw more people of color into police forces across the state.

The Council of Small Towns warned Thursday that ending qualified immunity for police officers would expose municipal leaders to significant personal liability, leading to an increase in municipal insurance costs. Betsy Gara, COST’s executive director, said municipalities throughout the state are already struggling to fund important services because of COVID-19 and are anticipating a significant decline in property tax and other revenue because of high unemployment and business closures.

“By opening up municipal employers to significant liability and insurance costs, this bill will force increases in property taxes and/or deep cuts in critical services,” Gara said. “This will undermine the efforts of our towns to position their communities for social and economic recovery following the pandemic.” 

COST recommended lawmakers remove the provision from the bill so the issue can be addressed in a way that doesn’t overburden municipalities and taxpayers.

Advocates, meanwhile, argued that ending immunity would help families affected by police violence and provide a means for them to be compensated for their loss. They also said the potential for hefty lawsuits could discourage police departments from keeping on their payrolls those officers who routinely commit misconduct. If officers don’t violate people’s rights, one longtime community activist said during the bill’s public hearing, they’ll have nothing to worry about.

Even without qualified immunity, the bill is still a robust set of reforms, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday morning. He pointed to a section of the bill that would allow the Police Officer Standards and Training Council to revoke an officer’s certification if they use excessive physical force or if they do something that “undermines public confidence in law enforcement.”

The bill also narrows the circumstances in which police officers can use chokeholds or use deadly force, gives cities and towns’ civilian review boards subpoena power so they can hold officers accountable for misconduct, and creates an inspector general position that would investigate deaths in police custody — and decide whether to prosecute them.

Winfield said even if the bill passes in as strong of a form as the draft, there’s more work to be done. Other battles, like those for more equitable housing and education systems, still remain.

“You say ‘Black Lives Matter but you don’t want us living near you,'” Winfield said. “When this is over, the fight still continues.”

CT Mirror reporters Keith Phaneuf and Kelan Lyons contributed to this story.

Mark Pazniokas is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2020 © The Connecticut Mirror.

mpazniokas@ctmirror.org

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