As soon as he can, Manchester police Sgt. Bill Young said he will leave the job he has loved for 24 years, the profession he wanted to be part of since he was a kid.
“If I could have left yesterday, I would have left yesterday,” Young said Thursday.
The married father of two is is one of several police officers who told The Courant they are planning an early exit from law enforcement in Connecticut after the legislature this week passed a police accountability bill that Gov. Ned Lamont is soon expected to sign.
The 71-page bill will significantly change policing in the state, prohibiting many vehicle searches, mandating that all officers wear body cameras, banning chokeholds in most cases, creating a new independent inspector general to investigate officers’ deadly use of force and expanding municipal civilian review boards statewide.
“The police accountability bill recently passed by the legislature will not only better protect the public’s constitutional rights, but also protects our law enforcement officers with a number of reforms, including improvements to recruitment, training, ongoing mental health screening and continued immunity from personal liability when acting in good faith as part of their job,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.
“We all know the vast majority of police officers are capable, caring, compassionate professionals, and they are protected under this legislation,” he said. “Only the few who knowingly act in a malicious and intentional way to violate somebody’s constitutional rights continue to be impacted. Despite a lot of misinformation that is being put out, that hasn’t changed.”
Police, however, say the new law will hobble proactive policing and expose officers to financial ruin and hostile scrutiny from clueless review panels. And union leaders and department command staff say they are hearing from more and more colleagues who plan to leave the profession.
East Hartford police union President Officer Frank Iacono said department morale has been declining steadily over the past few years and the accountability bill has sealed a decision many officers were mulling.
“I know at least one member put in his retirement papers last week and more senior members are starting to head that way,” Iacono said. “As for the younger officers, I know we have a few who are looking at police jobs out of state, and a couple have already applied.”
Fear of ‘frivolous claims’
The bill’s most controversial provision includes changes to what’s known as qualified immunity, making it easier for people to file lawsuits against officers, departments and towns. Supporters of the bill have noted that officers would only be held liable for “malicious, wanton or willful” acts, but police say they have no trust in the process and fear baseless complaints will succeed. The change takes effect July 1, 2021, and legislators have said the language could be adjusted further.
“Without qualified immunity stopping these frivolous claims at the door,” Vernon police union President Detective Thomas Van Tasel said, “we expect to see municipalities settling prior to any trial. These settlements also effect morale because the officers never get the chance to prove they acted appropriately.”
Bloomfield police Officer Steve Graboski, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 36, said he and several other officers are serious about leaving policing and returning to former professions.
“I went through the academy at 44,” said Graboski, who has been an officer for six years. “I spent 25 years in construction. I’m not willing to put my family in jeopardy. I love my job, but I can’t risk doing my job and getting sued.”
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat and co-chair of the judiciary committee who helped draft the bill, said “it is unfortunate how much misconception there is about this bill and how some are seeking to fear monger for political gain.”
“For example, officers face little additional risk of being sued,” he said. “The use of force standard defined in this legislation will not prevent an officer from defending themselves or others, and police will still be able to effectively do their job.
“There’s no question that change is hard, especially when it calls for giving up a degree of control in favor of more civilian oversight and accountability. But we stand firmly with the departments and officers willing to work with us to implement the changes in the bill and to help improve policing and community relations across the state.”
Bloomfield police Detective Suzanne Laiuppa, a 15-year veteran of the department, said she already has started submitting applications for jobs in other human services fields. The Bloomfield native, who has four young children and a husband who also works in law enforcement, said she loves her job, but can’t risk the liability.
“I don’t want to leave, but I am forced to protect my family,” said Laiuppa, 39, who specializes in sexual assault and human trafficking cases and is on the governor’s task force for abused children.
“The cost to the citizens both financially as well as in regards to potentially decreased services, is going to be alarming,” Manchester police union president Lt. John Rossetti said.
“Aside from that, it sucks,” Rossetti said. “I was born and raised in this town. I grew up on Spruce Street and Cottage Street and never thought somehow me or my profession would be a symbol of racism for politicians to attack.”
Manchester police say state leaders’ disdain and ignorance of their profession comes on top of local leaders’ contempt. Cops responded angrily last month when the Democratic majority of the town’s governing body issued an official statement regarding the death of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis and a fatal police-involved shooting in Manchester.
The statement said Democratic leaders “recognize that for many, the terror associated with police interaction is a certainty.”
“Whether it manifests as an elevated heart rate when a squad car passes by, or a bead of sweat that forms on your lip as an officer walks toward you on the street,” the Democrats wrote, “the horror is real, and it is palpable.”
Missing from the statement, local cops say, was any acknowledgement of the life-saving service and volunteer work they provide daily.
A rushed process
Sen. Saud Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor, said police officers are “needed and appreciated.”
“They put themselves in harm’s way to protect everyone,” he said.
However, the actions “of a small group of bad apples have magnified the emergent need to have transparency and accountability,” he said. “This bill helps rebuild trust in police for minority communities and makes sure that there is better recruitment, training and monitoring in place for professional interactions.”
Another provision of the bill that has concerned police is a section regarding searches. A legislative analysis of the bill says it “generally prohibits consent searches of individuals by specifying that a person consenting to a search is not justification for a law enforcement official to conduct one, unless there is probable cause.”
The bill also limits circumstances under which police may search motor vehicles stopped solely for motor vehicle violations. An officer may not ask for a driver’s consent to conduct a search of the vehicle or its contents and any search must be based on probable cause, or “after receiving the driver’s unsolicited consent in writing or recorded from body-worn recording equipment or a dashboard camera.” Officers say that will hinder their ability to discover illegal guns or drugs during traffic stops.
“The irony in this whole situation,” said Iacono, the East Hartford police union president, “is that the people who will suffer from this bill the most aren’t police officers; it’s the people who live in the low income, high crime areas where we work.”
Police leaders said they are not opposed to reforms, but criticized the legislation as rushed and drafted without significant input from law enforcement.
“We ... believe that we deserved more than a few weeks of bill crafting, a few late nights of discussion and voting, and we wished we could have had a seat at the table to assist with creating legislation that would have brought positive change,” said Van Tasel, the Vernon police union president.
Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, said claims that the bill was rushed “couldn’t be further from the truth.”
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“It’s my understanding that departments had been offered a seat at the table ... to suggest an alternative and we heard very little in the weeks leading up to the vote,” he said. “It’s disappointing that this was the case, but now we have an opportunity to get onto the important work of building trust between cops and their communities, a relationship that is clearly fraught. Let’s get to work.”
Asked for the East Hartford police administration’s reaction to comments from Iacono, the police union president, department spokesman Lt. Josh Litwin said, “Where do I even begin? I can say we echo the concerns and questions voiced by law enforcement (and many other citizens) statewide.”
“We have echoed them,” Litwin said, “and as you know, they’ve been acknowledged and then, by virtue of passing this bill, they’ve been largely ignored. Portions of this bill are so dangerous I’m deeply concerned for the welfare of my own family.
“Morale? Bad. Worst I’ve seen in my 18 years in Connecticut law enforcement. A difficult job is being made impossible. Many of us, including yours truly, are now weighing options.”
Courant staff writer Christopher Keating contributed to this story
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at email@example.com