Newtown Delegation Splits On Party Lines Over Historic Police Reform Bill
With the Connecticut General Assembly mustering the votes to pass it, and Governor Ned Lamont’s verbal endorsement a day ahead of a July 28 special session with the state Senate, it appears that Connecticut will be among the first in the nation to codify a sweeping new and historic police reform bill.
Following passage in the House on July 24 on nearly a party-line vote of 86-58, a divided state Senate shouldered past the fierce opposition of Connecticut police unions early Wednesday, July 29, to vote 21-15 for final passage of House Bill 6004 that both capitalizes on and addresses the outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
After weeks of bipartisan revulsion at the video of a white police officer casually kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed and dying, the question of how best to confront police misconduct and change the culture of policing turned partisan.
Every Republican in the Senate voted against the bill with some denouncing it as “anti-police.” Others were milder and called it well-intended, but rushed, flawed, and in need of revision. A half-dozen Democrats expressed reservations about various provisions of the bill during a ten-hour debate that stretched past 3:50 am, but anger behind the demands for reform was authentic — and the need to act was palpable, Democrats said.
Senator Tony Hwang, whose 28th District encompasses Newtown, cast a No vote against the bill. In a statement sent to The Newtown Bee following the vote, Hwang stated “Our nation, and our state, must implement necessary police accountability and social justice reforms,” and that “changes to current policies are important and necessary.”
But he asserted, “These changes must be made with all voices at the table, with careful consideration for how the laws will be implemented, and with our eyes open to unintended consequences that could move us further away from our goal to achieve justice, equality and safety for all people.”
The senator expressed deep concern about the process leading up to the police reform bill passing.
“In these unprecedented times, the legislature is using new but untested methods to gather input and hastily written legislative language to affect some major changes to Connecticut State law on police reform and accountability,” Hwang said. “I agree there is a need to act and many elements of the bill are good, strong proposals. But rushing legislation does not do justice to the level of attention this issue requires.”
Hwang, like his GOP colleagues in the House, said he believes the bill could bring sweeping, unintended consequences that “will negatively affect public safety and diminish our law enforcement’s effectiveness.”
He went on to say, “This bill will hurt good officers, damage recruitment efforts, and will put unworkable burdens on good officers and towns and cities, hurting the poorest communities most. Every person needs to feel safe and protected in Connecticut, but I believe that this bill, as currently written, moves us further from that goal.”
“Today, I voted no on the proposed bill,” Hwang concluded, and “Neither the discomfort and complicated logistics of legislative work during this pandemic nor the emotional weight of this issue should control the legislative process.
“We should not pass a bill that has a long list of grave concerns regarding legal and constitutional issues,” the senator added. “I urge my colleagues to reevaluate the passage of an important bill that, at its current language, does not achieve the goals we all share.”
House Members’ Input
After beginning at 1:19 am on July 24, the House debated until about 9 am with the Democratic majority reaching a consensus. The House then immediately adjourned its special session, leaving the Senate with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, as any Senate revisions would kill the bill.
With Republican opposition hardening and some Democratic support teetering, the measure’s backers worked to reclaim a narrative that had shifted away from the need to protect communities of color from police bias to Republican assertions that the bill would endanger police officers and expose them to frivolous litigation.
A Republican amendment that would have stripped the bill of language limiting the qualified immunity against litigation failed on a rare tie vote, 72-72 with representatives Bolinsky and Sredzinski in support, and Rep Allie-Brennan opposing.
Rep Sredzinski, who works closely with police and law enforcement agencies in his job as Stratford’s public safety dispatch supervisor, and as a ranking member of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee said following his vote, “I take our public safety very seriously.
“We spent weeks working on a bipartisan approach to the concept of police reform; we spent several days negotiating; we spent the last 24 hours strategizing a solution but ultimately came up short,” Sredzinski said. “This legislation makes our police more vulnerable and our state less safe. Especially with the removal of qualified immunity, this is a major concern for our law enforcement officers.”
Part of Rep Bolinsky’s extended response indicated that he “heard loud and clear from many Newtown residents, municipal leaders, and dozens of law enforcement officers who either serve our town or live as our neighbors.
“A solid majority made it clear that they like the quiet, safe community we call home and appreciate knowing Newtown’s police have their backs,” Bolinsky said. “While I also heard from about a dozen folks asking me to vote to defund the police and eliminate qualified immunity, the overwhelming sentiment was we, in return, should have [police officers’] backs, too.”
Bolinsky said he knew there would be some pushback if he voted no, “but I also was convinced that the bill would cost our town some of its police, leaving us less safe and, potentially, exposing taxpayers to millions of dollars in ligation by eliminating the immunities generally granted to nearly every public service employee.”
The Newtown lawmaker said the “bill was too important to rush through without public hearings and the full legislative committee process.”
“An Unwieldy Mix”
“Out of respect for all the good officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep all members of the public safe, we needed to get this right. But, when the entire bipartisan process broke down, the bill began changing every hour for a day and a half,” Bolinsky said. “It became an unwieldy mix of good policy that was overwritten with unrelated anti-law enforcement measures that did not address the underlying issues of fairness and equity under the law.”
In the end, Bolinsky said he stands by his No vote on HB-6004, and that he hopes “to be part of the conversations to work it to evolve it into an effective, fair, and balanced set of laws that ultimately, levels the social justice playing field.”
Rep Allie-Brennan replied to The Newtown Bee’s request with a lengthy statement he also published on his Facebook page, which said prior to the vote, he had extensive conversations with friends in law enforcement, with law enforcement leadership in Bethel, Danbury, Redding, and Newtown, and with members of the community.
“A thread consistent through every conversation is the bond of trust between law enforcement and many within our communities is damaged, but not [irreparable]. Restoring that bond — on both sides — is critical, and we must take steps to help make that happen,” Allie-Brennan said. “What Connecticut needs is reform that will ensure a small number of bad actors can’t discredit the good work done by the majority of our police officers.”
In regard to the controversial qualified immunity provision in the bill, Allie-Brennan said establishing the power of accountability and the existence of consequences for egregiously bad behavior, is critical to repairing the bond of trust between law enforcement and our communities.
“Some law enforcement officials are concerned that if qualified immunity is removed, police officers may fail to act as otherwise necessary for fear of being sued,” he continued. “What this bill will do is create a new cause of action for a victim or victim’s family to sue when someone abuses their position as a law enforcement official.
“Responding to law enforcement concerns and to allow room for any adjustments, I have also fought to have this section be enacted July 1, 2021 and applicable to any cause of action arising from an incident committed on or after July 1, 2021,” Allie-Brennan concluded. Calling his vote “a difficult decision,” Allie-Brennan added that he saw the passage of this measure as a step toward healing in the wake of how he has seen law enforcement engage with communities, particularly communities of color.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, urged his caucus to reject the GOP amendment, saying the bill set a standard for limiting immunity in state law similar to the existing standard in federal cases — misconduct would have to be “malicious, wanton or willful.” The bill’s reforms include holding police accountable for misconduct, answerable to a new inspector general and local civilian review boards.
It set new standards for the use of force and limited the ability of police to search vehicles during the motor vehicle stops. In the new proposal, authorities could only use deadly force when they had exhausted all reasonable alternatives, reasonably believed the force creates no significant risk of injury to a third party, and reasonably believed such use of force to be necessary.
When determining whether an officer acted reasonably, officials would consider whether the person killed had a deadly weapon, and whether the officer either heightened or attempted to de-escalate the situation. Officers who witness their peers acting in an “unreasonable” manner will be required to intervene or will be subject to the same punishment.
Under the bill, choke holds will be banned except when necessary to protect someone from the imminent threat of death; the inspector general would have the ability to issue subpoenas so they can obtain documents and compel testimony from otherwise uncooperative municipalities or police departments; and the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council could can revoke an officer’s certification if they behave in a way that undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement, or use unjustifiable or excessive physical force.
The council can also suspend an officer for up to 45 days. State police would be required to be certified through the council. Currently, POST certifies municipal police, not state troopers.
POST would also expand its instruction to include implicit bias training, to teach officers to recognize and mitigate unconscious biases against populations they are sworn to serve, and to work with other state agencies to come up with a statewide policy for how police officers should manage crowds. Such a policy would also identify the documentation police must provide after a confrontation with a civilian in a crowd management incident.
The bill would require the use of body and dash cameras for all municipal and state police. It is expected to cost at least $8 million in the first year to buy the equipment and data storage services.
Local Municipal Impact
Following the house passage, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said he generally supported a number of points in the draft legislation, but ultimately felt an overarching attitude among some lawmakers to pass the hastily concocted legislation was just wrong.
“The prevailing thought of passing the bill and fixing it later is not a responsible approach to legislating,” Rosenthal said. “I think to suggest we can ‘fix it later’ is irresponsible.”
Rosenthal said a failure to bring the bill up through committee processes and not vetting the potential costs to municipalities — especially Connecticut’s larger and poorer cities — regarding exposure to lawsuits does not make communities safer.
“I’m not against reform,” he said. “I just think there needed to be a little more homework done.”
The first selectman was also concerned that the bill did not include a provision permitting police supervisors to be in a different union than the officers they manage.
“It’s generally against practice to write up a fellow union member,” Rosenthal said. “So when you talk about bad eggs, you can have folks not being written up when they should be, or moved through a disciplinary process as they should. That’s difficult to achieve when you have officers and supervisors in the same union, not that it’s an issue with our department.”
Another concern, the first selectman said, was whether there is a general understanding that qualified immunity applies to civil cases, not criminal action.
“People are still able to sue. The bar is set and I think the legal community knows there needs to be a viable case,” Rosenthal said, adding that many lawsuits involving police and municipalities and police agencies reach settlements. Allie-Brennan’s statement also spoke to that point saying, “The courts will still dismiss frivolous lawsuits from the outset. The offenses that trigger the limits on qualified immunity must be deliberate and extremely serious — such as false arrest, sexual assault of a detainee, or murder.”
When it comes to a provision in the bill about mental health screening, Rosenthal said it appeared that “all the dots got connected.”
“I wish there was a better understanding with mental health screening [as it relates to] collective bargaining,” he said. And while, as Rep Allie-Brennan noted, the qualified immunity aspect of the bill does not take effect until next July, the first selectman cautioned that “some part of this bill would go into effect very soon.”
Newtown Police Commission Chairman Joel Faxon reacted to the senate vote saying, "I support many of the goals of the legislation because portions the bill will improve accountability and force a technology upgrade of municipalities - unlike Newtown - who have not been in the forefront of policing innovation through mandating body- worn cameras, for example. One area that I have substantial disagreement with is the elimination of consent searches. This US Supreme Court approved method of conducting a search is an essential tool for safeguarding the officers and the public. Also, the consent is captured on body cam video so that both internal police and judicial review is guaranteed. The elimination of this important sanctioned-for-decades legitimate law enforcement technique is misguided and reactionary in my judgment."
The bill now moves to the governor’s desk for signing.
When Lamont was asked about his support of the House approved measure during a July 27 COVID-19 press briefing, he responded suggesting he was inclined to support it.
“I would approve it — I think it’s a good bill,” Lamont said. “I think the House made it a better bill and I hope the Senate passes it. My understanding is it’s moving along pretty well.”
This report incorporated CT Mirror content from Kelan Lyons and Mark Pazniokis.