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The elected respond to the people

It has been just over two months since the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer shocked the nation. But it was not that alone. It was the recognition of two tiers of police enforcement, the discomforting reality that a person of color, and particularly a Black man, is more likely to be questioned or pulled over by police and that interaction is more apt to end tragically.

Too many Black men have died in police custody or during stops and arrests, including in this state, often involving relatively minor criminal matters. Polls show a majority of citizens have reached the conclusion that things have to change, and not in some distant future, but now.

In Connecticut the people, diverse in age and racial makeup, took to the streets in our urban centers, our suburbs, and our small towns and demanded that change.

It is entirely appropriate that our lawmakers responded and that Gov. Ned Lamont intends to sign the reforms into law.

The reform package passed 21 to 15 around 4 a.m. Wednesday, with Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury as the only Democrat voting against. The bill had passed the House last week in a 86-58 vote, also largely along party lines, with Rep. Joe de la Cruz of Groton the lone local Democrat in either chamber to vote against.

The legislation is not flawless. Amendments may well be in order when the legislature, after the November elections, returns in 2021.

It is unfortunate the votes were largely partisan, Democrats largely in favor, Republicans in unity against. In their opposition, some Republicans voiced genuine concerns about the appropriateness of some of the reforms and whether they had adequate legal or constitutional foundation.

Other Republican opponents, however, described the matter in us-against-them rhetoric. Republican Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott called the accountability package “an anti-police bill” that would “decimate law enforcement as we know it.”

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party blasted out an email that sought to inflame emotions, and raise donations, by warning the bill would make “our streets more dangerous.”

Such rhetoric is badly out of step with voters and seeks to turn a necessary policy debate into just another political fault line.

The legislation creates civilian review boards. Such boards can assure information is not hidden. That in turn can improve police-community relations and build trust.

The law requires body cameras for all officers, which can protect them as much as the public by supplying a record of what happened.

It stipulates that deadly force can be used only when police exhaust all reasonable alternatives. And it improves training to address implicit bias.

None of this is “anti-police” or would make our communities less safe.

Most controversial is the provision that strips away general immunity for departments and officers, exposing them to liability in civil court for misconduct that is “malicious, wanton or willful.”

Debate in the House and Senate showed lawmakers did not agree on what the language of the bill, in context with existing state law, means in terms of exposing officers as individuals to paying damages. Some said it does, others insisted it does not.

In our view, short of conviction of a crime, individual officers should not face exposure to damages. On the other hand, individuals who have suffered damages due to police misconduct deserve redress in court.

Given the confusion, amendments to this provision may be necessary to clarify it.

We welcome the creation of a new position of inspector general to investigate police shootings and alleged illegal use of force, removing the job from prosecutors, who have an inherent conflict of interest given their need for police cooperation.

However, questions were raised whether the four employees the law assigns to the office is sufficient. It likely is not. And Sen. Len Fasano, minority leader, has raised state constitutional questions about the new office. The Judiciary Committee should explore these issues next year.

Also, the new law prevents the state police from having a contract, as they do now, that blocks disclosure of various personnel and disciplinary records and supersedes the state Freedom of Information Act. That’s fine, but we agree with Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, that all such records of public employees should be available and not blocked by contracts.

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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