MESKERS: Why I voted to support the police accountability bill

Submitted by State Rep Steve Meskers, State Rep for the 150th District

The Police Accountability HB 6004 legislation that we passed in last week’s session in Hartford is good for our state and good for our society.  But getting there proved to be one of the most difficult and emotional negotiations that I’ve experienced as your representative.  As with most contentious legislation, there has been much highly charged commentary.  Some of the commentary has been constructive and some, unfortunately, has been more political and disingenuous.

Over the last several weeks, the issue of police accountability and the ways in which law enforcement engages with communities – particularly communities of color – has been at the front of our national conscience and is as relevant here in Connecticut as it is nationally.  How we respond today will resonate for years to come.

I voted for this legislation because it’s the right thing for our state.  This doesn’t mean I don’t support the police.  Far from it, I have been and continue to be supportive of law enforcement and our first responders.  Our local police officers do incredible work. They are heroes and a true community resource.  BUT Connecticut needs police reform to ensure that a small number of bad actors cannot discredit the good work done by the majority. 

Countless hours were spent drafting legislation that included provisions for transparency, increased sensitivity training, civilian review boards, body and dashboard cameras to name just a few laudable recommendations. These vital reforms will help rebuild trust among police and the communities they protect and serve.  It shouldn’t be depicted as controversial.  It’s not.

The provision that generated the most heated debate concerned qualified immunity. I fought for and succeeded in implementing the compromise language that was finally passed.  This language does not repeal qualified immunity.  Instead, we reformed it to a version that existed until the early 1980s, which protected officers who made reasonable mistakes.

This bill will rightly prohibit any officer from depriving anyone of their right to equal protection under the law.  Understand, 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. Bad actors will not be moved to a different department or municipality. Dismissal after due process will be more readily attainable. In addition, we expanded some protections for officers: the compromise language clearly states that no officer will have to pay out of pocket for a lawsuit unless they have engaged in highly egregious conduct and even then, they would only have to pay if the municipality asked for reimbursement.

Click here for a plain language analysis of the bill
Click here to read the full bill

While I would have liked to have seen this follow a different process, allowing for in-person public hearings where all stakeholders could speak, I believe we ultimately settled on a piece of legislation that significantly increases accountability but does not require officers to obtain personal liability insurance. Responsible officers are protected, and irresponsible ones are held accountable.

No piece of legislation is perfect, but I believe this bill represents a real step in the right direction.  As implementation proceeds, we will need to continue to monitor the results for unintended consequences.  Modifications may be required. But sitting here today writing this, I am proud of my fellow lawmakers for stepping up and voting for this seminal piece of legislation.  

Equal protection under the law is the right of all our citizens.