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Gov. Ned Lamont signs comprehensive police accountability bill into law

Gov. Ned Lamont signed a comprehensive police accountability bill Friday. He is shown here addressing the media in March in Guilford.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed a comprehensive police accountability bill Friday. He is shown here addressing the media in March in Guilford. (Brian A. Pounds/AP)

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont signed a comprehensive police accountability bill Friday, surrounded by supporters who said there is still extensive disinformation about the new law.

After emotional and divisive debates that lasted into the early morning hours, the bill was approved by the state House of Representatives and Senate with Democrats largely in favor and Republicans against.

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The two sides remain split on the issue as supporters say the measure will improve policing across the state. At the same time, police chiefs and rank-and-file officers say they are concerned the new law will lead to difficulties in recruiting new officers and prompt some older officers to retire at a time of low morale.

Lamont, though, views the situation differently.

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“I want to say, first of all, to the police ... you’re my heroes,” he said before signing. “I saw after that George Floyd murder, I looked around the country. I saw arrests and what was going on in Portland, vandalism and looting — and that didn’t happen in Connecticut. That didn’t happen because the protesters were there representing the very best of our values, and the police were there with respect. That’s what makes for a great police force and community policing — and often they were there taking a knee or walking arm in arm. I think we led by example as a state.”

Sen. Rob Sampson, a Wolcott Republican who voted against the bill, said Friday that his opposition has not changed.

“I feel like we are in a major battle between those who want to preserve our country, our system of laws and justice and our history, and those that want to tear it down,” Sampson said. “This terrible policy will have dangerous ramifications going forward. I am greatly concerned about the damage to police officers and departments, and the public safety of my neighbors.”

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, who works as a police officer in New London, said officers should not be overly concerned about the bill’s changes to the concept of qualified immunity that currently shields officers from personal damages in civil lawsuits.

“They don’t have to worry about it,” said Nolan, a member of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “They still have immunity ... unless they do something egregious and wrong.”

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who spent eight years as the city’s police chief during a three-decade career in law enforcement, defended the measure as “a great bill in so many ways” that would lead to improvements in policing. The bill calls for towns to explore the possible use of social workers to respond alongside police on certain calls.

O’Leary said Waterbury has been employing behavioral health specialists for the past 10 years to respond with officers and deal with residents who are suicidal or have a long history of mental illness.

“They de-escalate. They are trained to do so,” he said. “More often than not, they know the individuals who they are responding to, and they have a rapport with those people. It’s amazing how their interaction de-escalates the situation, and we can get them the help that they need.”

The legislation also mandates all officers wear body cameras, bans the use of chokeholds in most cases and creates a new independent inspector general to investigate deadly use of force by police.

Rep. Brandon McGee of Hartford, who serves as chairman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said legislators had turned the calls of protesters into state laws. He thanked fellow lawmakers for telling personal and emotional stories about their interactions with police.

“Your stories and lived experiences shook this building — the state Capitol — to its core, and we would not be here today without your passion,” McGee said. “It is no secret to many of us that, for far too long, Connecticut law has enabled the violence of rogue officers. The provisions, however, in this bill are not meant to hinder or punish good cops. It is to provide the people with a voice in the system that for decades” was not heard.

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who was a key author of the bill, and others said that as older officers retire, they might be replaced by more women and officers of color in the future.

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“If you implement this correctly, and you put in place the provisions of this bill, you change the perception of those parts of our communities to what the profession itself is,” said Winfield, who was sitting near Lamont when he signed the bill. “I think over the long run, the profession will benefit from that. It’s something that we really haven’t been talking about, but I can imagine that if you’re a young kid growing up right now in certain communities, you don’t look at the police as a place where you want to be. But hopefully, if we’ve done this right, in the coming years, that might actually be a reality.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com

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