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Republican legislator and candidates blast state police accountability law

Norwich — One Republican state representative and three GOP legislative candidates joined Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom Tuesday to slam the new police accountability law, passed in an overnight session by the General Assembly.

During a news conference outside Norwich City Hall, Nystrom cited concerns expressed by Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley about “An Act Concerning Police Accountability,” signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont on July 31. The 72-page law addresses police training, mandates body and dashboard cameras for state troopers and removes a protection against civil suits against individual officers, replacing it with language allowing civil suits to be filed in state courts.

Nystrom said the new language could raise legal costs for municipalities in defending police and said the law failed to recognize good work by local police departments.

“I think they basically threw my police department under the bus with what they passed in Hartford,” Nystrom said. “I’m very disturbed by that. If they wanted to see how a good department’s run and learn by doing and watching, they could have come here to the city of Norwich.”

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, who is seeking reelection in the 47th District; 19th Senate District Republican candidate Steve Weir; 139th House District candidate Caleb Espinosa and 46th House District candidate Robert Bell all said they would seek changes in the law in the 2021 session if they are elected. All four districts include Norwich.

Dubitsky voted against the bill in the July special session and said he unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill by reinstating qualified immunity, or protection from lawsuits.

Dubitsky said the bill was “well meaning, but it was an emotional overreaction, a knee-jerk reaction that essentially put the cops in Connecticut in the crosshairs.”

He said there were “excellent” provisions as well as faulty ones, and blamed the Democratic-controlled legislature for not making the distinction. He called the training requirements “reasonable” and said he probably would have voted for them.

But Dubitsky argued removing qualified immunity effectively tells police they could face personal liability complaints “even when they have not done anything wrong.”

Dubitsky said the bill will encourage “good officers” to leave the force and will scare those interested in becoming police to change their minds.

In his email to the mayor Monday, Daley wrote: “it seems unlikely officers will be stripped of Qualified Immunity on a regular basis, the new law creates a cause of action that will increase lawsuits. Given the cloudy legislative intent, a spike in nuisance lawsuits and settlements will greatly affect municipalities.”

The law states that civil action brought against officers would be covered by government immunity when, “at the time of the conduct complained of, the police officer had an objectively good faith belief that such officer's conduct did not violate the law.”

But if a court finds an officer acted in a “malicious, wanton or willful” manner, the officer will have to reimburse the municipality for legal expenses, and the municipality “shall not be held liable to such officer for any financial loss or expense resulting from such act.”

Espinosa, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said the law already is leading some qualified candidates to reconsider careers in law enforcement. An active Army National Guardsman, Espinosa said several fellow soldiers have told him they are shying away from applying to become state troopers.

Dubitsky said the state already is short of troopers, with about 800 of the 1,200 authorized troopers on the force and half eligible for retirement.

Weir, a former Glastonbury police officer challenging state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the legislation “effectively told police, ‘we don’t trust you.’”

Osten said separately that the law does not eliminate immunity for police but shifts to the federal definition of government immunity. The change allows someone to file a civil suit, but the officer still would be covered as the case goes through the courts.

“Qualified immunity did not allow an action to go forward if someone felt their civil rights were violated,” Osten said. “But the officer is still covered.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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