Police officials on Friday harshly criticized a section of pending reform legislation that would eliminate their longtime protections from civil lawsuits for abusing their powers.
Andrew Matthews, a former State Police sergeant who heads the Connecticut State Police Union, told the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee that many troopers will retire or resign if lawmakers remove so-called qualified immunity in cases of the death or serious injury of detained suspects.
“No one ever intentionally goes into a situation and uses excessive force,” Matthews said during the first hour of a daylong, online Zoom hearing aired on CT-N because of the closure of the state Capitol complex in the coronavirus pandemic.
“Most departments are struggling to hire officers,” said Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart, the new president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. “We all strive to require quality officers. Not every potential recruit makes it. We do not want problem people to be hired or retained as police officers.”
He agreed with Matthews that the removal of immunity protections will make it much harder to recruit and retain officers.
“The idea of stripping immunity is another lesson in lawmakers and uninformed or deliberately obtuse interest groups attempting to further an ideology and not actually working to make policing more effective and safer for both officers and the community,” Lt. George Bryce, representing the Bethel Police Union.
But state Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, chairman of the legislative Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said there must be a way to challenge law enforcement officials who cannot adhere to standards.
“In the end, if police are doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to be afraid of, right?” McGee said during the morning portion of the hearing, during which speakers were limited to three-minute statements.
Danbury Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour said he is generally supportive of the legislation, particularly the “valuable tool” that police obtain mental health assessments every few years, because such personal issues can often be seen as signs of weakness among cops.
In a first-of-its-kind event in state government’s new normal, the historic police-reform legislation won praise from proponents of the legislation.
The bill would open up disciplinary records for public scrutiny, utilize more social workers to defuse some incidents, require cops to intervene during unacceptable instances of brutality, and establish local civilian review boards with subpoena powers.
“We need to hear from the public, especially in the moment,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the committee, who drafted the bill with his co-chairman, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport.
“I’m looking for real transformational change in the way we’re policing,” said Barbara Fair, a social worker and longtime West Haven activist. “This is about 401 years of terrorism against Black people in this country.”
Oladotun Oretade, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said the bill falls short in offering mental health evaluations for officers every five years, stressing it should be more often. “I think it should be readily available and encouraged,” he said. “A lot of officers probably have this complex. They don’t want to do a lot of these weak things.”
At least 151 people registered for the event by early Friday, in preparation to air the bill in time for debate and action in the state House of Representatives next week and the Senate later in July.
The hearing comes as Black Lives Matters protests of June and early July have tapered off, but it’s a moment that progressive, mostly Democratic lawmakers believe is crucial to act. State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, longtime ranking member of the committee, called the bill a “moving target,” which will be the subject of further negotiations early next week.
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, who was recently promoted to the statewide post, recommended that instead of an inspector general, as written in the draft legislation, another state’s attorney team, including detectives and a crime-scene analyst with the power to issue subpoenas, be created to investigate police misconduct. He said the cost would be about $1.9 million a year for staffing the team.
Kristan Peters-Hamlin, a former federal prosecutor who serves on the Westport Representative Town Meeting, said the legislation should enable the creation of elected, not appointed, local civilian review boards, to assure their independence. She suggested penalties for officers who fail to properly use their body cameras, which in her experience have been abused.
Shortly after noon, Janice Colandrea, of Meriden, said she supports current protections for police. “I feel like this is a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going around this country,” she said, charging that cops will be hindered in their work by the legislation. “Who in their right mind would go into this career with this going on?”
This precipitated a back-and-forth between Colandrea and state Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who detailed occasions of racial profiling.
“We all do have our different views and experiences and this is why we’re here listening,” said Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, ranking member of the committee. “I think everyone on this panel has very good intentions.”