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Locally, some officials laud police reform bill, others call for further review

The police reform bill passed in the state House on Friday received mixed reviews locally, with some officials lauding the bill for increasing police accountability in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers, while others say aspects of the bill need further review.

According to a summary by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the bill calls for more than 25 areas of reform.

The proposed requirements include mental health assessments for police officers every five years; reports on recruiting and retaining minority police officers in communities with relatively high minority populations; intervention by officers who see another officer use “unreasonable or illegal use of force”; and body and vehicle cameras. It also would allow municipalities to create police civilian review boards, prohibit chokeholds and eliminate qualified immunity “for particular police officer actions,” among other things, according to CCM.

The Connecticut Mirror reported that the bill “passed on nearly a party-line vote of 86-58, with Republicans opposed to a provision limiting the qualified immunity now enjoyed by police.”

State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, who supported the bill, said she has been listening to people protesting and “we need to do something in light of events in the nation, and in our state and in our communities.”

Conley said that while the bill is not perfect, it is “a step towards accountability.” She said she’s particularly excited about the mandate for body cameras and that the bill also calls for bonding money to assist the municipalities with funding. She said the anti-bias training and officer mental health screenings also are really important.

State Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, was one of four Democrats who voted against the bill, according to the Connecticut Mirror.

De la Cruz said that while the bill contained many wonderful aspects, he was hoping an amendment to remove the modifications to qualified immunity would have passed. He said that component needed to be removed for him to support the bill.

“I thought it was a good compromise,” de la Cruz said. He said the qualified immunity issue was a “sticking point” among the police chiefs in the area who were concerned that the proposal would handicap police. He said that while there is movement and change needs to happen, he is concerned about unintended consequences that could occur under the bill.

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, who voted in support, said he was inundated with discussions, small group meetings and hearing from the youth with their concerns about holding police accountable. He said he heard from people in New London and as far away as Danbury.

“I was in a difficult place where I’m a police officer, and yet I do believe that police need to be held accountable for some of the things that we do,” he said. He added that it wasn’t specific to New London officers, it was for officers statewide.

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said he voted against the bill. “Though we are in a situation where there is no doubt that in certain instances there are certain police officers who have done horrible things, removing qualified immunity from all police will simply devastate police’s ability to protect people in this state,” he said.

He said he was concerned about unintended consequences that would deter the recruitment and retention of good police officers, particularly at a time when state troopers are understaffed and many of the towns in his district rely on troopers.

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said if the qualified immunity piece could have been sent to the Police Accountability Task Force for further review, she said she would have backed the bill and it would have seen more support. “I’m very, very saddened by this,” she said. “It means a lot to me to be helpful and to help everyone have equality and justice. I had hoped we would have been able to come to a bipartisan support on the bill. It came very close.”

Groton Town Manager John Burt said he supports many measures of the bill, including requiring mental health assessments for police officers every five years, requiring municipal police departments to evaluate the feasibility and impact of using social workers on particular calls or in person with officers, allowing the creation of Civilian Review Boards, requiring body and vehicle dash cameras, prohibiting chokeholds, and requiring officers to intervene when they witness another officer using “unreasonable or illegal use of force.”

The Town of Groton adopted body cameras for police three years ago.

“I’m pleased to see a requirement for these in the bill, since they can play such an important part in revealing what happened during a given interaction,” Burt said.

“I fully support measures to hold any bad police officers accountable,” he added, but was concerned whether modifying qualified immunity would accomplish that goal and that it would negatively impact good officers and recruitment efforts. “I am hopeful that the final legislation will take into considerations all these important interests.”

Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner thanked legislators who supported the bill and listened “to thousands upon thousands of protestors and anti-racists throughout our country and in our community that have taken to the streets in advocating and demanding for policing policy reforms and increased transparency and accountability.”

“Those individuals spoke loudly and I think the legislature delivered,” Bumgardner said. He added that he wanted to thank the local legislators that protected the provision within the bill that removed qualified immunity and praised the courage of Republican state Rep. Jesse MacLachlan in voting against the amendment that would have removed that provision.

As the chair of the Town Council's new Public Safety Committee, Bumgardner said the committee will deliberate in the coming months on a host of policing policy reforms, particularly related to establishing a civilian review board.

Shiela Hayes, president of the Norwich NAACP branch, said the bill doesn’t contain all the accountability protections she would like, but it is a good starting point for a more in-depth discussion in the regular General Assembly session starting in January. She will look into more details of the proposed independent inspector general and supports the plan to allow for police officers’ certifications to be revoked if misconduct is found.

The Norwich NAACP branch created its own police accountability task force, which met with Norwich Police Chief Patrick Daley in June. The task force supports creating municipal civilian review boards but the parties agreed to wait for the state legislation before moving ahead with any local changes. Norwich police already wear body cameras and have cruiser dash cameras, which the NAACP also supports, she said.

"We will reconvene the police accountability task force after the special session," Hayes said. "There was no point in us trying to second guess what was going to happen. We can work on it in September and discuss what are the areas we want to address in the next General Assembly session in January. I'm hopeful. I'm optimistic."

Tamara Lanier, vice president of New London NAACP, said she was in Hartford on Thursday during a "Back the Blue" rally and counter-protest. She said she witnessed "animosity, aggression and hostility" over this issue from some members of the "Back the Blue" side. She said she saw a young girl being assaulted by a member of the "Back the Blue" rally who took exception to her taking a photo.

"For me it was an eye-opening experience that we're not going to get them to open their eyes or try to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes to understand why this reform is so needed and that it has to be legislated because we're not going to change hearts and minds here," she said.

Ledyard police Chief John Rich said it’s still too early to know what the end result and its impacts on policing will look like, though he anticipates the final bill will require additional training and body cameras, both of which he supports. He's asked the town for body cameras in the past, and feels fortunate in Connecticut to have a group like the Police Officer Standards and Training and the amount of training required of officers.

Rich said his concerns lie in the qualified immunity provision, which he said might alter public perception of police and their ability to do their job; a specific example he gave was young people wanting to serve their communities through a career in law enforcement might think twice if they think they have fewer protections. He said he will never condone police brutality or willful misconduct, and he’s confident in his officers’ ability to handle themselves and do their jobs.

City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said police officers need to be held accountable, but the measure limiting qualified immunity needs to be looked at very closely. He said he was concerned about potential unintended consequences that would create an additional challenge of retaining good police officers and a harder challenge to recruit new officers.

Montville Mayor Ronald McDaniel said the bill has positive aspects, such as body cameras though he was unsure how municipalities would pay for them, along with items that need some review.

“I’m certainly hopeful that the Senate will modify it somewhat because we have some concerns from a municipal level on some liability issues that may affect our ability to defend officers against frivolous lawsuits,” he said.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said he hadn't had a lot of time to review the 65-page bill but, on the whole, he was pleased with a large part of it. He said he was withholding judgment to see what the final version is that passes in the Senate.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette and Amanda Hutchinson contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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