More debate expected on state’s police accountability law
New London ― The state’s Police Accountability Act passed in 2020 in the wake of nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality touched off by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Debate on that law is expected to heat up again during the current General Assembly session as Republican lawmakers seek to repeal provisions of a law they say goes too far, restricts police from performing their duties and has led to low morale and lower recruitment numbers. Several bills are in the early stages.
The debate of the law will come against the backdrop of the brutal beating and death of Tyre Nichols, this time at the hands of Memphis police.
The Police Accountability Act, in part, provided tighter restrictions on police searches, expanded requirements for the use of body cameras, required police who witness excessive force to intervene and report it and, according to critics, exposed police to a greater risk of being sued. The law also created the Office of the Inspector General to take on investigations of excessive force claims or deaths in police custody.
Two officers debate law
State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police detective and ranking member of the Public Safety Committee, called the actions of the Memphis police officers “unconscionable.”
“His death was tragic and unnecessary. I am confident nowhere in (Connecticut) would these actions be seen as acceptable, nor if committed by a police officer without swift action against the officer(s) responsible,” Howard said in an email.
But Howard rejects the argument that “the actions of bad officers in Tennessee” highlight the need for more police accountability in Connecticut. In fact, he thinks the opposite is true.
He is among a host of legislators to pose amendments or revisions to the Police Accountability Act. He has co-signed legislation with Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, to amend the law to restore a police officers ability to request consent to search a motor vehicle when the officer has “reasonable and articulable suspicion that weapons, contraband or other evidence of a crime is contained within a vehicle.”
The accountability law limited the ability of police to search a motor vehicle during routine traffic stops.
Other proposals for consideration by the legislature would amend statutes concerning use of force, the circumstances under which an officer can have their certification revoked, allow an officer to seek an appeal of a denial of a governmental immunity defense and revise the pursuit policy “to allow officers to pursue individuals suspected of committing certain property crimes.”
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a New London police officer, said he would vote against any revisions to the existing law.
“There are some who still trying to make it look like (the Police Accountability Act) was the whole problem behind losing police officers,” Nolan said. “That’s just a small part of the reason.”
Nolan said local police unions have been using scare tactics, telling officers they are now open to more lawsuits when in fact an officer performing his or her duties has little to worry about. The law, he said, takes a step to restoring some of the respect that has been lost for police officers while adding a layer of transparency.
“Law Enforcement Officers take an oath to serve, but most importantly protect, our communities. I’m sick that we continue to watch this truly heinous and brutal behavior continue as if it’s okay. As a legislator – but also a fellow Law Enforcement Officer – it’s time for action and I want to call upon my colleagues in uniform to do better,” Nolan said in a statement.
“Do not turn a blind eye, do not be fearful or intimidated, we must all stand up and speak out if we want to see these tragedies end,” Nolan said.
While police will never fully be able to separate themselves from some physical altercations while on the job, there needs to be a cultural change in police departments regarding the way people are treated, Nolan said.
“We have to remember, we’re the one’s there to keep the peace. We’re not there to escalate situations. We’re not the judge and we’re not the jury,” he said.
State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, has introduced a bill, of which the language is still being worked out, which he said will “make it easier for cops to do their job.“
“The so-called Police Accountability Bill really put a wet blanket on police work and policing in general. It did exactly what many of us anticipated when the bill was introduced. It’s scaring cops away for doing their jobs. Many of them are leaving and recruiting is becoming difficult,” Dubitsky said. “They’re under a microscope and not allowed to do their jobs, get a consent for a search and in some cases not allowed to chase criminals. You can’t prevent crime ...with these types of restrictions.”
The reason the newly-approved contract with state police, includes such high wage hikes, he said, is because it is designed to retain and attract more people to the profession.
“A false narrative”
Michael Lawlor, an associate professor at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven, said there continues to be a false narrative about the state losing police officers because of the Police Accountability Act when in fact it is a nationwide problem. He said that the uptick in gun violence in Connecticut is also happening nationwide.
“Their argument is because the law passed, nobody wants to be a cop. Okay. Well, why is the exact same thing happening elsewhere where they didn’t pass these laws,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor is also a member of the New Haven Board of Police Commissioners and sits on the Police Officers Standards and Training Council.
“I see who wants to be a cop in Connecticut now, at least the ones we’re interviewing in New Haven. They are impressive. They’re who I want to restore trust in the police in the community.”
Lawlor said one of the main talking points in police unions is that because of the bill and misunderstanding about qualified immunity, “officers are afraid to do their jobs because they don’t want to get sued and lose everything,” he said.
But Lawlor said officers are still indemnified by municipalities against claims of civil rights violations under existing law and no more likely to be impacted by a lawsuit.
“There’s good cops and bad cops. The vast majority are good cops.. but it’s pretty clear there are some officers who are not prepared to abide by the new rules. Some can’t deal with that,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor said the best example of a police culture in need of change is contained in the Nichols police beating video in which one officer is telling another about to go chase Nichols and that “he better stomp,” him when he catches up with Nichols.
“There’s an expectation about what’s going to happen,” Lawlor said. “You can’t do that stuff now because you’re being captured on camera. I think some percent of the police officers can’t grasp the idea they do not have unlimited authority to do whatever they want to do in any situation. There’s more awareness now this stuff is going to get you fired or arrested,” Lawlor said.
Disparaging of police officers
Howard said he recognizes that police recruitment is an issue across the country but said there is a greater problem.
“We, as a society, have so disparaged this profession based on the criminal acts of a small minority of officers that no one wants to do this job anymore,” Howard said. “Every day, I listen to people criticize this profession as they make wildly inaccurate assertions. That's why I say the Police Accountability was a representation of this. It's not so much the contents of the bill that is affecting recruitment, but the message that was sent by the bill, and frankly continues to be sent by elected leaders that all cops are bad people; and as such, they all need constant and excessive oversight to prevent them from doing misdeeds.
East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said he agrees that the Nichols’ killing is likely to lead to additional debate, which he said is warranted.
“This case was egregious and I think you watched the Department and District Attorney move swiftly to take action to fire and arrest the Officers,” Finkelstein said. “For me, it is yet another case highlighting the importance of the selection process when hiring officers. This includes setting high standards and maintaining those standards, selecting officers that embody the right mind set and desire to serve their community, the proper training from day one, and the organizational culture that exists in the agency. We need to continue to ensure that more quality officers seek to get into the profession, not less.”
New London Police Chief Brian Wright issued a message in social media, calling Nichols’ death heartbreaking and a “failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”
As he and others in the profession navigate new laws and increased scrutiny by the public, Wright said “we have to be better and do better, hold ourselves accountable and to a higher standard.”
“This intolerable failure in duty and service is the number one challenge for police leaders across the nation and police executives must discover efficient and effective ways to dismantle any perceived culture within policing that would condone or allow for such abuse of those that we are entrusted to protect and serve,” Wright said in his statement to the public and staff.
“This is just another stark reminder how important it is to be compassionate, to be empathetic, to be human. I think the men and women of the New London Police Department do a fine job of that,“ he said.