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Police accountability bill: responsibility to go around

Leaders of the Connecticut General Assembly released their much-anticipated draft of police accountability reforms Thursday. The public will have an opportunity to comment before it is debated in a special session later this month, but it is instantly clear that the proposed bill means business.

The draft includes provisions that this newspaper has consistently urged and that Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups have said are essential to combat inequities in the way law enforcement treats people of color. If the special session passes this bill in a form close to the draft wording, Connecticut will be looking at both a leap forward and a long-term commitment to change.

The 65-page bill, authored by members of the Judiciary Committee from both parties, proposes to replace policies and procedures that have failed members of the community and left police too likely to improvise on their own in fraught situations. Among other things it would:

  • Allow officers to use deadly force only if police reasonably believe that they have exhausted all reasonable alternatives, that no third parties will be harmed and that the use of such force is necessary. "Reasonability" would include whether a person killed had a weapon and whether officers tried to de-escalate the situation. Fellow officers present at the time would have to intervene if they believed an officer is acting unreasonably.
  • Bar chokeholds except in reasonable self-defense.
  • Change the investigating authority for police accountability to a separate Office of Inspector General.
  • End "qualified immunity" from civil lawsuits against police in cases alleging violation of civil rights.

The bill parcels out long-term investigation and action on other reforms to a variety of state and local authorities. The Police Officers Standards and Training Council would develop a statewide policy for managing crowds and oversee mandated diversity hiring programs in communities with a high number of minority residents. The Police Accountability and Transparency Task Force would be charged with examining "no-knock warrants," whether to require police to carry professional liability insurance, and whether police officers ought to work road construction sites — an assignment that pays overtime but may have a cost in terms of officer availability. Municipal departments must look into hiring social workers to accompany officers on some shifts, a practice the New London Police Department pioneered years back.

Police officers would take "implicit bias" training to identify unconscious prejudices. The bill also includes a new provision for civilians, making it a crime to report a crime based on a person's race, religion, ethnicity, disability or gender orientation.

Other issues such as what is negotiable in police union contracts may remain on the table for now, but the range of mandates and mandated participants ensures far-reaching change. Examining so many aspects of contact between police and the public in orderly fashion holds much more promise for reform than piecemeal changes.

Looking at the bill's list of redefined limitations on police use of force, it seems to us that most reasonable police officers — the only kind a community should have — won't find too much added burden. A stricter set of rules and clear definitions should still allow an individual officer's discretionary action but within limits that the state of Connecticut sets and would enforce. Conscientious cops will welcome clarity.

We urge the legislative leadership to resist any temptation to load the upcoming special session with too many agenda items beyond police accountability and the time-sensitive issue of whether to expand mail-in balloting for the November elections, given the threat of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Spend the time on these two game-changing issues and give Connecticut a new legacy of equity and justice.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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