CT Senate passes police reforms 21-15

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven speaks during special session at the State Capitol, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven speaks during special session at the State Capitol, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

HARTFORD — A landmark bill in the era of Black Lives Matter passed the state Senate early Wednesday 21-15 after a nearly 10-hour debate on wide-ranging legislation that could hold police personally accountable for malicious brutality, and end a system where bad cops who were fired from one department could find work in other towns and cities.

It tested friendships in the 22-14 Democratic majority, which in the end stuck mostly together, losing only Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury to the solid Republican opposition.

The debate began at about 5:20 p,m. on Tuesday and finished at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday in a sometimes testy discuss in a near-empty Senate chamber in which custodial crews continually cleaned microphones and desks after one by one, senators spoke.

Gov. Ned Lamont said he would sign the bill. The most contentitious part, which could hold individual cops liable in line with existing federal law, won’t take effect until July 2021.

Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement after the vote that it’s a way to address years of complaints about violence and racism among police.

“Ending police violence will not be solved by any one bill, but the bill passed out of the legislature today is a start,” he said. “The legislature must take stronger action in future sessions to end systemic racism and violence in policing, and policymakers must recognize that their work has only just begun. To the legislators who instead voted to shield the profession of policing from accountability, do better.”

“Since June, we've seen residents across Connecticut raise their voices in peaceful protest, demanding change,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney,D-New Haven, after the vote. “With Senate passage of the police accountability bill, we have affirmed to the people of Connecticut that their voices were not ignored and that changes in laws and policies enhancing transparency and professionalism in policing will be the new norm in our state.”

"Over the past few months, I've heard from and marched with constituents who demanded change and accountability in policing," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “These calls have been echoed across the state and throughout our country, putting us in a unique position for change. By passing this bill, it shows that, as a legislature, we are committed to addressing the structural issues that exist and seek reform so that residents, particularly residents of color, regain trust and confidence in their police departments.”

“Today, the Senate took a step to right the wrongs of the past," said Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee who spent the entire debate at his senate desk “For years, I've stood side by side with activists and organizers who have fought tirelessly for social justice and changes in our criminal justice system. This is long-term work and addressing the systemic and racist policies that exist in this system and in policing will not be solved by one piece of legislation. But by passing this police accountability bill, we are finally acknowledging that these entrenched, systemic behaviors are unacceptable, and change is needed.”

“Today, the Connecticut State Senate voted in favor of the safety and well-being of families and communities across our state and answered the call that our residents so desperately need and rightfully deserve,” said State Treasurer Shawn Wooden after the vote. “Following hours of heartfelt testimony and debate, this vote landed on the right side of history. The bill, which now heads to the Governor’s desk for signature, will lead to investments and improvements in training resources for law enforcement, an increase in transparency and trust between police and the neighborhoods in which they serve, and greater accountability for officers who abuse their power. When our children and grandchildren ask us what we did at this pivotal time in our nation’s history, we will be able to say that we took action to dismantle the systems of oppression in this country and in Connecticut.”

Winfield introduced the bill and stressed that the transparency and reform legislation has been in the making since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but is not aimed at the many exemplary Connecticut cops.

“I don’t want to talk about the good officers,” said Winfield early in the debate. “Let them go do their job. I want to have a discussion about the officers who are operating in a rogue way and make sure that we deal with them. This conversation is focused on the officers who do the wrong thing, who are given power and don’t know how to use it, and that power goes unchecked. And this bill checks that power.”

Toward the end of the debate, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a former correction officer, said the bill became a wedge issue in the Democratic caucus, testing friendships.

It will create an independent inspector general to investigate police-related shootings, prohibit choke holds except in cases where cops fear for their lives, and train police in better de-escalation tactics when dealing with crowds. Cops who witness coworkers abuse suspects would be required to intercede and report the instances, with new whistle blower protections in attempt to end the so-called blue wall of silence.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said that even though he might have spent 60 hours collaborating on the bill, he wasn’t going to vote for it. He had serious doubts about its goals.

“I’m not a racist, I’m not a bigot, I’m not insensitive to what’s going on out there,” Kissel said, “but there are parts of this bill just go a little bit too far.” He warned that nuisance lawsuits could result from the most-controversial section of the bill that would eliminate immunity from civil liability for officers linked to brutalizing people in a willful, wanton manners.

“I think this issue is not simply about the case in which someone is killed in an interaction with police, but how power is given to police and how they are able to use that power, and whether or not that power has a check on it,” Winfield said. “Someone said to me is this about history or policing, and I don’t see a difference there. This is not something that is new, not something that is rushed, but something that is a longstanding part of our history.”

Winfield acknowledge that the immunity section, which survived in a tie vote in the House Friday morning, was important because of the failure of the system.

“If you’re one of the people on the wrong side of the equation, when the system fails you again, you deserve the ability to have some form of recourse,” said Winfield. “That’s why that is important to this conversation. And I will say as the father of four children who walk this earth in the black skin that I have, it’s important to me that if something ever happened, they’d have recourse.”

Kissel warned that someone suing police would likely target as many officers as possible.

“You’re going to maybe over-charge in the litigation to make sure that you are correct about who’s ultimately at fault,” Kissel said. “I also get that there’s litigation out there where folks are looking to get money and if you examine some of these suits, many of them are ultimately settled. Well, people can say the settlement is probably nuisance value. You add up enough nuisance-value suits, all of a sudden you’ve got a big issue.”

Kissel warned that the legal exposure could discourage officers from staying in the profession.

“I think ultimately there might be unintended consequences,” Kissel said.

During a 45-minute back-and-forth with Winfield, Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a retired police officer, continually referred to the so-called defund the police movement. “This bill is bad for police and it’s bad for correction officers,” Champagne said. “We’re rushing this through.”

But Sen. Alexandra Kasser, D-Greenwich, said that police abuse and domestic abuse are very similar, in which power is exploited to take advantage. “It’s a power differential,” she said. “One party, one person using their power to dominate, control, hurt or exploit another person and it’s wrong, whether it happens inside our homes, or inside our communities, on our streets, anywhere. It is wrong.”

Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said she’s spent much of the last six weeks listening to her Black colleagues. “I’ve heard about their experiences,” she said. “I’ve heard about the fear in Black and brown communities. I’ve heard and believe that too many Black and brown children are raised in fear of the police rather than having the trust we would all want in the local authorities.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT