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Police Reforms Clear Connecticut Senate On Partisan Vote

Bill author Sen. Gary Winfield (with blue mask) watches the vote in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio
Bill author Sen. Gary Winfield (with blue mask) watches the vote in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

A divided state Senate shouldered past the fierce opposition of Connecticut police unions early Wednesday to vote 21-15 for final passage of a police accountability bill that both capitalizes on and addresses the outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

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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.

With an email blast saying the bill would make “our streets more dangerous,” the Connecticut Republican Party telegraphed an intention to make the issue central to re-election campaigns this fall, amplifying President Donald J. Trump’s effort to cast the GOP as a bulwark against civil disorder.

Every Republican in the Senate voted against the bill. Some denounced it as “anti-police.” Others were milder and called it well-intended, but rushed, flawed and in need of revision. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the sense of urgency so keenly felt by Democrats was artificial.

“Social media took over everything, set the tone,” Fasano said. “Shame on us.”

A half-dozen Democrats expressed reservations about various provisions of the during a 10-hour debate that stretched past 3:50 a.m., but only one, Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, joined the GOP in opposing passage in a special session. The anger behind the demands for reform was authentic, and the need to act was palpable, Democrats said.

“It’s a big moment,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex.

The measure represents a breakthrough for Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and other groups that have struggled and, until now, most often failed to make significant changes in how police are recruited, trained, deployed, managed and disciplined. The bill is comprehensive, packed with reforms deemed politically impossible in past years. 

It creates the office of an inspector general to investigate complaints of police misconduct, requires police and correction officers to intervene when witnessing brutality, mandates body and dash cameras, bans chokeholds in most circumstances and clarifies that deadly force can be used only when police exhaust all reasonable alternatives.

While much of the opposition focused on the legal nuances of how the bill limits the qualified immunity from litigation currently enjoyed by police, provisions that revamp and empower the Police Officers Training and Standards Council might prove more significant. 

It gives the council the authority to decertify a police officer, revoking a necessary credential for employment. POST, as the council is commonly known, would play a large role in shaping training for every police agency in Connecticut, including the State Police, and help set policies on crowd control and the use of force. 

By law, implicit bias training would be part of every police candidate’s training regimen, and officers would be subjected to periodic behavioral health reviews.

“It begins to cause a cultural shift,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate.

But its ultimate impact on policing practices and culture could take years to unfold, turning on implementation by law enforcement, interpretation by the courts and the possibility of additional legislation next year before much of it takes effect.

Winfield acknowledged before the debate the ambitious scope of the legislation, the difficulty in predicting its impact and the alarm it raises in a political and policing culture accustomed to incremental change.

“I think any of these at any other time would in and of itself have been a substantial move,” Winfield said. “Right now,  I do believe they all need to be happening simultaneously. I know that irritates a lot of people, but I believe it to be true.”

Winfield said the aggressive approach was a necessary assault on a system that has been impervious to change when it comes to its interactions with citizens of color.

“Every tool that we have thrown at this system, the system has continued  to maintain itself,” Winfield said. “And by that I mean when people, particularly Black people, seek justice when aggrieved by police officers, they have a hard time finding it.”

Sens. Gary Winfield and Doug McCrory share a prayer after the vote with Reps. Robyn Porter and Anthony Nolan
Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio
Sens. Gary Winfield and Doug McCrory share a prayer after the vote with Reps. Robyn Porter and Anthony Nolan

The essence of the debate over the bill was embodied Tuesday night in an exchange between Winfield and Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon. They faced off from opposite sides of the Senate, each informed by vastly different perspectives of police.

Winfield is Black and urban, his political awakening sparked by one of America’s earliest cases of police brutality on video: the beating of Rodney King by the L. A. P. D. Champagne is white and suburban, a man who came to politics after a career as a police officer in Vernon.

Champagne sees the legislation as flawed, particularly its limits on the doctrine of qualified immunity that long has protected police officers, good and bad, from liability in litigation over police brutality and other misconduct. The bill actually maintains significant protection for police officers in civil cases, specifying that officers will be indemnified against loss unless a jury enters a judgment against them for  “a malicious, wanton or wilful act.”

But Champagne said he sees only pitfalls, traps for well-intended police officers and invitations for frivolous lawsuits. He peppered Winfield with hypotheticals. Could someone who got a speeding ticket sue? What about the officer who confronts an armed man, fires and mistakenly hits a bystander? Would regional SWAT teams still be possible? 

Champagne said the bill is too intrusive, prohibiting police from pressing motorists for permission to search a car after a motor vehicle stop, unless they had probable cause. He predicted officers would step back for fear of litigation.

Winfield listened. He struggled at times to answer. Eventually, his rebuttal turned on the differences in the two worlds of Dan Champagne and Gary Winfield.

“I can tell you about sitting on my porch, watching police officers pull over a car. It’s a young man. It’s a young black man, and I can tell you exactly how that situation is going to go,” Winfield said. “I can tell you that officer’s trying to get into the car, and that officer doesn’t have probable cause. And the officer will say things like, ‘Well, he seemed nervous.’ ”

Winfield paused.

“I’m the chair of the Judiciary Committee. They pull me over, I’m nervous,” he said. “Because I have walked around in this skin for the entirety of my life. That doesn’t mean the officer is bad. It means that what has happened here has led us to a place where I can’t say for sure that I leave that encounter.”

Winfield told the senators they were debating a bill provoked by the Floyd’s death, but ironically the case was not the best evidence of its necessity. The officers in Floyd’s death will get a different brand of justice due to the incident’s notoriety, but in “a normal case” there is no effective recourse for someone who looks like his constituents, someone who looks like him.

“We can have all these hypotheticals and all of the stuff you want to talk about. I’ve heard it all,” Winfield said. “But there’s no justice for those people. And that means no justice for me. And if there’s no justice for me, there’s no justice for those people. And what you call justice is injustice.”

Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, an educator in Hartford, said every Black man knows the experience of being suspect in the eyes of police, and every Black legislator knows the frustration of still having to explain why reforms are necessary, even after the killing of George Floyd.

“That’s why we’re passionate. That’s why we’re angry,” McCrory said. “We can’t understand why we’re treated this way.”

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, a restaurant owner and one-time first selectman, told Winfield he appreciates his passion. He acknowledged he could never understand what it means to be Black and he conceded the need for significant change.

“I will say I am learning. I have a wonderful teacher,” Formica said.

One of his three daughters married a Black man in September. Formica called him a “brilliant young man” who has shared stories about it means to be Black in America and his concerns about being the target of abuses of authority.

“We need change,” he said.

But Formica said the bill is too broad.

Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, praised Winfield for his effort and good intentions, but he saw the bill as too aggressive.

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, was less generous.

“This is an anti-police bill,” Sampson said. “This bill seeks to decimate law enforcement as we know it.”

Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, the only Black member of the GOP caucus, said the bill would contribute to an increase in crime.

“We would be putting our seniors at risk,” Logan said.

But some Democrats who initially had reservations ultimately concluded that the bill was necessary. They included Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who said before the debate he was undecided, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a former correction officer.

Needleman, the senator from Essex, said that he struggled with the sweep of the bill and what he saw as its flaws, but believes it comes at a unique moment.

“I stand here with a broken heart in many ways,” said Needleman, who is nominally the chief of police in Essex, where he is first selectman. “It’s painful trying to figure out how to thread the needle here, knowing we have a moment.”

Needleman and Cassano said the hope the legislature continues work on other bills in the regular session in January that would improve the measured adopted Tuesday night, a hope publicly shared by James Maroney of Milford, Carlo Leone of Stamford and Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport.

Maroney said his predecessor, Gayle Slossberg, counseled him not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“We do not have a perfect bill,” Maroney said. “But we have a good bill.”

The text of House Bill 6004.

The Office of Legislative Research analysis of House Bill 6004.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio

Mark Pazniokas // CTMirror.org
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