Stripping police 'immunity' from reform bill fails in tie vote

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in a file photo

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in a file photo

file photo

HARTFORD — The police accountability bill split the majority Democratic caucus in the state House of Representatives early Friday, but the most controversial piece stayed alive in a rare tie vote.

The 72-72 vote was declared by Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz after the House tally machine was kept open for 45 minutes while proponents of the reforms scrambled for support for lawmakers who, due to the coronavirus, had been sequestered in their Capitol complex offices since 11 a.m. on Thursday.

Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans in agreeing to pull the so-called qualified immunity section, which police and municipal officials said would discourage cops and cost cities and towns even more in annual insurance costs.

All day Thursday, legislative leaders attempted to salvage the bill in closed-door negotiations during a historic return to a near-empty state Capitol. Then, after 1 a.m., Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, finally introduced the bill — 15 hours after hundreds of off-duty unionized police officers demonstrated against it.

“This bill gives our police, towns and police chiefs an enhanced opportunity to work collaboratively with their unions, with us as the legislature and with their citizens to address the issues of police accountability and transparency,” said Stafstrom, stressing the proposal of a new inspector general in charge of investigating and prosecute the excess use of force.

The bill has a new procedure in which officers may lose their certification, ending the tactic of being fired from one department, then finding a police job elsewhere. The most controversial section of the bill would restrict so-called qualified immunity, under which police officers are shielded from some lawsuits over their actions.

Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter admitted that they did not know whether there was enough support in their 90-member caucus to pass the bill.

“I normally am supposed to know exactly where things are going to land, and there is a margin of error either way right now, it’s that close,” Ritter said. “And we’re okay with that. Joe and I have sort of said to the caucus this is one where it’s such an important issue, people have worked hard, that it’s going to get a vote and people are going to vote the way they feel.”

Stafstrom and Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, carried on an hours-long debate over details of the bill. After 3:30 a.m., Rebimbas raised her voice over the cost of the bill to towns facing the new state mandates.

Under questioning by Rebimbas about police searches, Stafstom defended the bill as “going right to the heart of racial justice.”

After 4 a.m., the 61-person Republican minority, which was down by five members, submitted an amendment to remove the most-provocative section of the bill, which would allow rogue police officers to be personally liable in civil suits by people injured in “malicious, wanton, willful” acts of police brutality.

Early in the debate, when Democratic leaders were unsure whether the bill would pass, GOP leaders said they did not plan to draft such an amendment and lawmakers on both sides wondered whether Democrats opposed to the section would offer such an amendment.

Police and other governmental officials are indemnified from civil lawsuits. So in practical terms, opponents led by Rebimbas pointed out, the bill would result in higher insurance costs for towns and cities

Black and Latino members of the House rose up with emotion, memories and first-hand experience against the proposal. “This is about listening to your colleagues,” said Quentin Phipps, D-Middletown, shortly after 6:20 a.m., citing the 40 or so people killed by police over the last five years. “This is about starting to hold folks accountable. We have normalized our trauma.”

Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who is white, agreed that 400 years of history “400 years of excuses and some 60 years of qualified immunity” that is “a ridiculous standard” that has been used by police who have killed young teens, arresting people outside their homes. “It is a ridiculous standard that I would doubt anyone would vote for,” Lemar said. “Can we protest our citizens just a little bit more than the federal government? This is an egregious legal standard that needs to be removed. Deny this amendment.”

“We can easily call this the ostrich amendment, where we just stick our heads in the sand,” said Rep. Edwin Vargas. “This could be like a breath of fresh air.”

The bill came under fire on Thursday morning as about 300 off-duty police officers and supporters - many without face masks to fight COVID-19.

This show of muscle may have cast further doubt in lawmakers facing re-election this year. The immunity section was also opposed by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and Gov. Ned Lamont said the issue should be taken out of the overall bill and discussed by the General Assembly at a later date.

Other protestors under the Black Lives Matter banner rallied in favor of the accountability measures at the Capitol Thursday. Twitter: @KenDixonCT