Wilton police union, reps criticize loss of ‘qualified immunity’ amid new reforms
WILTON — The state’s new police accountability law may have controversial sections, but Wilton’s department said it will abide by it.
“As police officers in Wilton, we will never stop serving our community just because of this legislation,” Sgt. Anna Tornello said.
The sweeping police reform bill — H.B. No. 6004, “An Act Concerning Police Accountability” — passed in the state Legislature in the recent special session and was signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on July 31. The law will go into effect in July 2021.
The bill was sparked, in part, by the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where during his arrest, a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes.
The bill was hotly contested, with more than 300 off-duty police officers and supporters protesting outside the state Capitol on the day of the vote, asking for the bill to be defeated, while protestors under the Black Lives Matter banner rallied in favor of the law.
Some of the main items included in the new law will remove qualified immunity, and allow civil lawsuits against officers if their actions are deemed “malicious, wanton or willful,” among other things; ban chokeholds in most circumstances, except where police officers fear for their lives; and bring “the justifiable use of deadly force” standard in line with federal law, clarifying that deadly force can be used only when police exhaust all reasonable alternatives.
Speaking in her capacity as president of Wilton’s police union, Tornello, a 10-year veteran of the Wilton Police Department, said she was disappointed at how quickly the law was passed, over just two days in the state Legislature.
“Legislation of this magnitude came out with no conversation, and was passed with no time to discuss it with legislators and the public,” she said.
She acknowledged there were a lot of “good points” in the bill, such as making body and dashboard cameras mandatory, banning chokeholds except in cases where officers fear for their lives, increasing access to mental health care, requiring bias and crowd-control training, and encouraging minority police recruitment.
She said the Wilton Police Department already implements some of these procedures.
“When I was at the police academy, we never trained in chokeholds. Anything goes to save one’s life, but there’s no need to use a chokehold other than a life-and-death situation,” she said.
She took issue with the most controversial part of the bill — the removal of qualified immunity — which she says currently protects officers from frivolous lawsuits unless the plaintiff proves the officer’s actions were malicious, wanton or willful.
“Qualified immunity was a way to eliminate litigation before a trial and avoid the burden of high costs associated in defending an officer from false and malicious allegations of misconduct. Now, the cost of litigation will be transferred to the municipalities, and the new law will open the door to attack more police officers,” she said.
She also questioned requiring police to submit to periodic drug tests and behavioral health screens.
“Our union has agreed to submit to random drug testing in Wilton. No problem. But what standards will be there for mental health screenings? How will the officer be classified?” she said.
Tornello supports making it easier for municipalities to fire and decertify officers and bar them from being hired in other towns.
“Police officers who are disciplined or fired for gross misconduct, you would not want to pose a danger in another community,” she said.
However, she would like to know what standards the POST council will be using in making decertification decisions. “We need guidelines, a list of what these things are, otherwise how can we give members directions,” she said.
Dress in blue
Tornello said she wants the Wilton community to know that members of the police department come from different backgrounds, but they are fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers just like them. “We just dress in blue when we go to work,” she said.
Before joining the Wilton Police Department, officer Graham O’Gorman was a landscape architect, while officer Sean Baranowski and recruit William Whitman are volunteer firefighters.
Officer Frank Razzaia is a salsa dancer, Sgt. Anthony Cocco is the department’s domestic violence liaison, and officer Robert Nosal was a Master Gunnery Sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Tornello has a varied background. She is an opera singer and organizational psychologist. She also was a police officer in Italy for almost eight years before moving to the United States.
“Basically, we support anything that supports our connection with the community, anything that promotes transparency and makes people safer by all means. We would like to have a conversation with the community so we can discuss what we can do better to help and trust each other,” she said.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said many of the reforms in the new law have already been adopted by Wilton police.
“I am actively working to fully understand the other sections of the bill and what impact it may have on the Wilton residents and the Wilton Police Department,” she said.
She noted the department received over a 90 percent approval rating in a townwide survey, and was recognized as the top police department in the state by the American Legion last year, largely due to its community policing efforts.
“The mutual respect between residents and Wilton police officers is one of the many things that make Wilton a wonderful community,” she said.
The vote on the police accountability bill was no walk in the park for Wilton’s state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton.
After a marathon session in the House, the bill passed 86-58, mostly along party lines, with the Democratic majority prevailing. A Republican amendment to delete the “qualified immunity” section of the bill was defeated in a rare 72-72 tie vote.
Lavielle, who attended the entire session, voted for the amendment, which was defeated, and against the qualifying bill, which passed.
She called the whole process “sloppy and disrespectful,” citing the lack of a public hearing, lack of time to hear from her constituents, and lack of explanation to the legislators on the lengthy and complicated bill.
“As a result, the bill itself has many ambiguous sections and is likely to cause towns a good deal of money,” she said.
For example, she said lawsuits suing police are currently held in federal court, where judges are appointed for life. Under the new bill, lawsuits will be filed in state superior courts, where judges are not appointed for life.
“If a lawsuit was frivolous, a judge in federal court would be likely to dismiss it,” she said.
But in superior court, the lawsuits would most likely go to a jury trial because the courts don’t have the training in these cases that federal judges have, she said.
“I’m not judging if that is a good or bad thing, but everyone expects there to be a big wave of lawsuits against the police and their towns, and it is a very expensive and long process. We need to know the consequences,” she said.
Like Tornello, Lavielle saw some good components in the bill, such as racial training for police officers, use of body and dashboard cams, reviews of officer misconduct by an inspector general and standards for decertifying officers.
Another good thing in the bill, she said, is the requirement to open police disciplinary records to the public. This will require union contract arbitration awards and disciplinary records to become more transparent and subject to Freedom of Information rules.
State Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-125, also voted against the bill, saying, “It will make our public less safe, cost our municipalities millions of dollars, and cause good police officers to be exposed to lawsuits and personal exposure without getting rid of the few bad officers.
“Qualified immunity ... allows our police officers to make very difficult decisions in what can often be life or death situations, without fearing legal repercussions for judgment calls they believe to be the correct course of action at that point in time.”
He also said the new law will “cost our municipalities millions of dollars to buy equipment and millions more for certifications, and millions more for insurance. All that money will have to come from property tax increases or by diverting funds from other areas.”