Fiorello: Police Reform Bill Raises Questions

Submitted by Kimberly Fiorello, Candidate for State Representative for District 149, Greenwich and Stamford

Right now, the Connecticut legislature is trying to pass a sweeping police reform bill.  Yes, we want to root out bad cops who betray our trust and abuse their authority.  And yes, we want the highest standards of accountability and consistency in our police force.  But does this big bill, “An Act Concerning Police Accountability,” totaling 41 sections at last count, get the job done? 

Here are some key provisions of the bill and the questions they raise in my mind:

* Changing the legal standard of justified use of deadly force. The bill would judge an officer’s actions from the perspective of a reasonable regular person, instead of judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.  And, it would require that the officer exhaust “all reasonable alternatives,” including attempting to arrest first, before using deadly force.  Would this cause police officers to hesitate to do what’s necessary to save or assist citizens in exactly those split-second moments when decisive action is needed?

* De-certifying officers as qualified to serve as policemen, if their conduct, including words spoken or actions taken while off duty, is found to “undermine public confidence” in police work. Or, an officer whose behavior does not merit de-certification, can be issued a 45-day suspension.  Who decides how to define “undermine public confidence” and could this be too vague a standard by which to measure our police?

* Removing governmental “qualified immunity”, which could subject police officers and municipalities to lawsuits, even when they performed their duties pursuant to policies and procedures. A task force would be set up to study requiring all police officers to purchase their own professional liability insurance.  Illegal acts, crimes and violations of civil rights by bad cops are not covered by qualified immunity under current law, so wouldn’t this policy hurt good cops by forcing them to risk their personal assets and buy insurance they do not need?

Some proponents argue “qualified immunity” is a flawed judicial doctrine that should really be removed for all public officials who could abuse their authority and hurt people, including the governor, mayors, selectmen, school administrators, teachers, prison guards and more, not just police officers.  That’s interesting.

* Banning the use of military-style equipment by police departments.  We don’t want to see tanks on our neighborhood streets, but our police should be able to use certain gear that improves their effectiveness and safety.  For example, night vision goggles leased from the U.S. Department of Defense are a big help when trying to find lost Alzheimer sufferers and small children in the dark.  Perhaps there should be a carve-out for especially useful tactical tools?

Missing from the among the 41 sections of this bill is any mention of police department accreditation. 

“Accreditation is about systemic best practices,” says my friend Jeff Hogan, a former police officer and former Chairman of the Farmington Town Council, who oversaw Farmington’s police department become the first in Connecticut to be state-accredited and privately-accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, CALEA.  His son is currently an active police officer in Connecticut. 

Accreditation rigorously reviews all departments functions, policies and operations.  It ensures accountability and transparency in hiring, training, disciplining, and firing.  It reaches out to the community for input. Unlike top-down legislation, the process of accreditation is a holistic approach to adopting best practices and impacting the culture of each unique police department to be the best it can be.

Greenwich should be proud that its force is one of 39 state-accredited police agencies from the 163 agencies in the state.  Chief Jim Heavey responded to my email saying that Greenwich spent two years earning its accreditation through a process that dealt with many of the concerns this legislation now seeks to address.  I reached out to Stamford’s Police Chief Tim Shaw but he was out at Lione Park for a weekly morning work-out with neighborhood youth.  New Canaan is a CALEA-accredited police force.  

This massive state-wide reform bill is a one-size-fits-all solution that may do more harm to Greenwich and Stamford.  The broad language and punitive spirit of the bill has understandably discouraged and frustrated many police officers.  “Back the Blue” rallies are being scheduled across our state to boost support for local police departments.

Big, sweeping, omnibus legislation is rarely the best answer for the problems of our times.  Municipalities deciding to pursue state- or private-accreditation programs for their police departments is one idea for an intense, focused, professional, community-based way to address many of the issues the proposed Police Accountability bill seek to fix, without the over-reach that should concern us all.  Please reach out to your state representatives and state senator to let them know how you feel about this bill.  It could be voted on as soon as this week.