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Senate passes police reform bill in late-night vote

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that attempts to reform police procedures and policies in light of the police-involved killing of George Floyd and other Black people, a wide-ranging proposal opponents argue will punish good officers but proponents contend is necessary to address rogue police while putting a check on police power and addressing injustices experienced by minority communities in the state.

The late-night vote capped off a day where the Senate gave final legislative approval to a bill allowing all voters to cast their ballots in November by absentee, making COVID-19 an acceptable excuse for not voting in person at the polls. They also passed bills capping the price of insulin and expands the types of health care providers that can offer telehealth services and requires certain insurers to cover the cost.

The bill passed 21-15 mostly along party-lines. Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury was only Democrat to vote against the measure, according to media reports.

Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign all four bills into law.

The police reform bill includes a particularly contentious provision that would remove governmental immunity protections for officers in certain serious situations, when they've been found to have committed a “malicious, wanton or willful act” while violating a person's civil rights.

While critics warned the provision could have serious unintended consequences, such as discouraging people from wanting to become police officers and prompting frivolous lawsuits, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, argued the legislation is very limited and immunity would only be removed for certain types of serious behaviors.

“I don’t want to talk about the good officers. Let them go do their job. I want to have a discussion about the officers who are operating in a rogue way and make sure that we deal with them,” he said, adding that "this conversation is focused on the officers who do the wrong thing, who are given power and don’t know how to use it and that power goes unchecked. And this bill checks that power.”

But state Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a mayor and a retired police officer who has called the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police officers “reprehensible,” was skeptical, arguing the provision "just opens the doors” for lawsuits against officers accused of committing “malicious, wanton or willful” acts in petty situations.

“I've seen things get turned around pretty good in court," said Champagne, who said he worries local taxpayers will ultimately having to pick up the tab.

Many senators spoke of the seriousness of the moment and the time to finally address racial inequities Connecticut.

“We must do better,” said Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury. “The nation is watching us. The state is watching us.”

Lawmakers were united earlier in the day in passing legislation that expands the list of reasons why people can vote by absentee, which currently includes excuses such as being out of town during voting hours or being an active member of the armed services. Lamont previously signed an executive order allowing fears about contracting COVID-19 to be an excuse for voting by absentee in the Aug. 11 primary, but his authority ends before the general election.

Both Democratic and Republican senators said they've heard from constituents who are fearful about going to vote in the General Election, given predictions that Connecticut might see another spike in coronavirus infections this fall. State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said she related to those concerns, noting she felt anxious about leaving her newborn baby at home to attend Tuesday’s debate during a continuing pandemic. But Flexer said it was her obligation, just like voting is the obligation of her constituents.

“It is something that is unique to this year, and this year’s circumstances and recognizes the overwhelming majority of Connecticut voters want to exercise their right to vote this year without fear for their health and safety,” Flexer said.

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the ranking Senate Republican on the GAE Committee, echoed concerns raised last week by House Republicans about language in the bill that requires town clerks to allow special state-authorized drop boxes for absentee ballots outside town halls, some of which remain closed to the public because of the pandemic. He speculated the ballots could somehow be damaged or tampered with.

The bill ultimately passed on a 35-1 vote, with Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bradley, casting the lone “no” vote. He raised concerns about past ballot irregularities in his city.

Senators also approved legislation that expands the types of health care providers that can offer telehealth services and requires certain insurers to cover the cost until March; and caps the price of insulin and other supplies and medications for diabetics.

As with the House debate, the public and lobbyists were not allowed inside the state Capitol on Tuesday. Only a limited number of people were on the floor of the 36-member Senate, with most senators listening to the debate in their offices or in a larger meeting room. Senators then returned to the chamber, a handful at a time, voted by pressing a button on their desk and were then ushered out of the Senate. The House, which has 151 members, had allowed its members to vote by computer in their legislative offices.



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