State Rep. Steve Stafstrom represents the 129th District (Bridgeport) and serves as House chairman of the Judiciary Committee
To the editor:
As provisions of the police accountability bill that the Connecticut General Assembly passed last July take effect, and as we enter the final stretch of the election “silly season,” I again feel compelled to address misinformation being spread about the bill and the process that led to its passage.
This bill was not rushed or drafted without input from the public, law enforcement, or legislators from a variety of communities. To the contrary, it was negotiated in good faith with both Democratic and Republican leaders of the Judiciary Committee at the table every step of the way. Both sides were involved in each draft of the process and had a say in which provisions were included in the final bill.
It is categorically untrue that police unions were shut out of the process. Numerous discussions were held with law enforcement leadership and rank and file officers. The bill was revised to reflect valid concerns.
The bill is not an indictment of police in Connecticut, the vast majority of whom are honorable and who risk their lives daily to keep the residents of our state safe. But, improvements can always be made. Just as we heard concerns from those opposed to stronger oversight, we heard poignant and at times disturbing, testimony from Black and Brown individuals about their feelings of institutional racism in police practices.
Hearing those calls for change, the bill included necessary reforms to enhance transparency, improve policing practices, increase accountability and yes, provide better care for police themselves. Importantly, the bill establishes statewide standards. While many jurisdictions already meet some of these standards, all must do so if we are to treat all of our citizens justly.
To improve transparency, the bill provides for local oversight of police departments through citizen review boards, allows for public review of police discipline records, mandates and provides funding for body and dashboard cameras and establishes an independent office to investigate deaths caused by lethal use of force by police.
To improve policing practices that treat all citizens with the respect they deserve, the bill encourages more minority recruitment in police departments, requires implicit bias training and de-escalation in crowd control. It also bans practices that have led to racial profiling, such as quotas for pedestrian stops and pulling over drivers and searching their cars without cause.
To prevent abusive and potentially deadly behavior, the bill brings the justifiable use of deadly force standard in line with federal law, bans chokeholds, requires officers to intervene when they see a fellow officer use excess force and protects those who report unwarranted use of force. It gives municipalities an easier path to fire “bad apples” and decertify police engaged in conduct unbecoming of law enforcement, such as using excess force or exhibiting racist behavior.
The bill provides a limited civil cause of action when an individual’s civil rights have been violated by a police officer who did not have a good faith belief that they were acting within their legal authority. What the bill emphatically does not do is expose police officers to legal liability when they perform their duties with a respect for human rights. So called “qualified immunity” continues to apply as long as the officer had an “objectively good faith belief that his or her conduct did not violate the law.” In fact, the bill requires municipalities to indemnify police officers from financial exposure, except when a court determines an officer deprived a person of his constitutional rights by committing a “malicious, wanton or willful act.” Importantly, the bill establishes a task force to fine-tune aspects of the law to ensure there are no unintended consequences.
In short, wanting greater accountability and transparency to ensure equitable policing is not an attack on law enforcement. Rather, those legislators who supported this moderate reform measure believe that building trust in police will make their jobs easier and make all of us safer. The unfortunate politicization of the bill in this election cycle by certain police unions and candidates shows an insensitivity to the call to address the systemic injustice suffered by communities of color that so many folks marched for this past summer.