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Local senators vote along party lines on police accountability bill

State senators representing southeastern Connecticut were divided on party lines when voting on police accountability legislation early Wednesday morning.

After a debate that stretched more than 10 hours, the Senate passed the bill just before 4 a.m. in a 21-15 vote, with support from local Democratic Sens. Cathy Osten of Sprague and Norm Needleman of Essex. On the other side of the aisle, Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Heather Somers, R-Groton, voted against the bill, which attempts to reform police procedures and policies following nationwide protests calling for increased police accountability after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury was the only Democrat to vote against the 71-page bill.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, helped draft the legislation and defended it for hours. He called on fellow senators to support the bill that, among other things, strengthens Police Officer Standards and Training Council oversight of police departments and officer certifications, holds officers responsible for reporting instances of excessive force they see other officers commit, bans chokeholds in most instances and rolls back some qualified immunity protections for officers, allowing civil lawsuits to be brought against them in some cases.

Winfield asked senators to remember that the call for police reform to protect Black Americans extends back to the 1960s and asked that legislators focus their conversation on the injustices that have been seen for decades.

As other senators, including Formica, expressed concerns that rolling back qualified immunity would ask officers to risk their livelihood as well as their lives while on the job, Winfield reiterated that the bill wasn’t meant to harm good officers but to hold the “bad apples” accountable.

“I don't want to talk about the good officers, let them go do their job; I want to talk about the rogue officers,” Winfield said.

Formica said the section of the bill that would roll back qualified immunity for police — which currently grants them wide protection from civil lawsuits — might impact good officers in an unfair way and would likely leave departments short-staffed.

After delivering powerful and personal testimony about how his family welcomed his son-in-law, who is Black, into their family with open arms, Formica said that he thought including that section of the bill was dangerous.

Formica said he’d been learning a great deal from his son-in-law, who has spoken of the microaggressions and racism he’s lived through.

Formica said he wants what is best for his Black and white grandchildren. The best, he said, would not strip police of qualified immunity. 

If the legislature allowed officers to be sued for their actions on the force, Formica said he thinks police departments will lose officers to early retirements, “stripping departments of crucial veteran leadership,” and will see a decreased number of new recruits who would otherwise “be the lifeblood of change.” He said that would affect the safety of town and city streets and the safety of his own family.

“Who would sign up to go to work every day when you risk your life and now are asked to risk your livelihood as a result of this bill?” Formica asked.

He said he agreed with, or was willing to compromise on, the majority of the bill and wanted to be a part of the needed change in Connecticut, but hoped the legislation would help officers be trained to do their job, not discourage them from joining or staying on the force.

“Let's give them the tools (they need), let's not tie their hands, let's not handcuff their ability to succeed,” he said.

On Wednesday, Formica said the vote went the way he expected.

“We certainly understand the change is something that has to happen, both with the attitude we have in this country toward each other and more specifically the way policing is done in this country,” he said.

He said he was glad he got to share his concerns about “why we thought this was a little bit hasty and not as well thought out as it could have been” and stands by his concerns that police officers will retire and departments will see fewer new recruits. He said he received a number of emails Wednesday morning from police officers who have been on the force for 20 years or longer who are now planning to retire early.

Formica said he hopes the legislature will further discuss the bill in 2021. “I think people on both sides of the aisle want to have more discussion,” he said. “It’s a big bill to be done in a special session.”

He also said that he hopes committees have more opportunities to weigh in on the bill and that more public input can be heard.

“We should have had public hearings, given people an opportunity to give their thoughts and give law enforcement their opportunity to speak,” he said.

Somers also recognized during deliberations that the bill failed to go through necessary steps like public hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and felt that the bill was rushed. She said her biggest issue with the bill also was with the qualified immunity, which she said prevents police officers from facing “frivolous lawsuits.”

Somers could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.

Osten said Wednesday that she, too, thinks there are still parts of the bill that need work. She said she hopes legislators will review the language in the bill regarding things like de-escalation tactics that should be used instead of force in high-risk situations where officers need to make split-second decisions.

“Sometimes the safety of other people may be in imminent danger and we want to make sure that an officer is able to react to imminent danger right away,” she said.

Needleman said late Wednesday night that he struggled with his decision to vote yes on the bill because of the perspective from some police officers that it discredits their work.

"It was a heartbreaking decision," he said. "It was choosing between people that I know and respect, who put their lives on the line for us every single day, and also a community that feels the way they are policed doesn't serve their interests."

Needleman said he was happier with the second version of the bill, and that he wouldn't have been able to vote "yes" on its original iteration. He applauded the efforts and passion of Black legislators and community members who backed the bill, and said all Democrats emphasized that the legislation is not meant to disrespect police.

Stonington Chief J. Darren Stewart, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, released a statement Wednesday in response to the bill’s passage. He acknowledged concerns that part of the bill would inhibit police departments' “ability to attract and retain quality police officers.”

“CPCA is thoroughly studying the bill to understand its impact to Connecticut Police Officers, who are on the front-line faithfully serving our communities and protect all citizens of the State of Connecticut,” he said. “We anticipate working closely with the legislature, when it is back in session, to examine these policies and suggest improvements on numerous aspects of the bill.”

t.hartz@theday.com

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