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'Playing Politics': Police Accountability A Divisive Issue In 2020 Connecticut Races

Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Demonstrators gathered at the Capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 23, 2020, to protest police reform measures being taken up in a special session. Now that the bill is law, candidates for state office are running in opposition to it.

Connecticut recently passed a police accountability bill after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Though the bill is now law, legislative candidates who oppose it are using it as a political issue.

Police reforms recently adopted include an overhaul of the Connecticut State Police Officer Standards and Training Council -- commonly referred to as POST -- an agency tasked with churning out new police officers; creation of the Office of the Inspector General to examine police use of force; and an effort to take on qualified immunity called “governmental immunity” that would open up departments and municipalities to lawsuits. State Republicans see that last change as controversial, even though proponents of the measure argue that unless an officer is found guilty of “malicious, willful, and wanton” conduct, municipalities would foot the bill for any judgments against police.

“At the end of the day, this bill has made our communities less safe because it’s hamstrung police officers from doing their job,” said J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party.

Romano calls the bill “anti-police,” and he’s encouraging Republican candidates for state office to push the issue as a way to challenge the leadership of Democrats who supported the police reform bill.

Republican Brian Marois, a financial adviser, entered the race for state representative in the 13th District that covers Glastonbury and Manchester as a fiscal conservative. But he’s modified his platform since police reforms passed through the state legislature in July.

“I feel that it’s very important that we do manage our finances appropriately,” Marois said. “At the same time, the new police accountability bill should be a top concern for many people -- not just law enforcement but for the community and their safety as well.”

That stance prompted the police union in Glastonbury to do something it says it’s never done -- publicly endorse a candidate for state representative, Marois.

Incumbent state Rep. Jason Doucette, a Democrat, is running against Marois.

“It seems that this action was motivated only by the police accountability bill and my support of it,” Doucette said.

Romano, the state Republican Party leader, said he won’t get involved in every single race, but the Connecticut GOP will put out ads focused on the issue. Other Republican candidates have highlighted the issue in campaign material.

Marois is doing his part by holding Facebook forums taking on qualified immunity with local police.

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano voted against the police accountability bill and is trying to overturn parts of it.

“What direction do you want to go?” Fasano said regarding his framing of the issue to voters.

“Where do you see this state going? Are you going to have a state in which you are not going to defend those that are keeping us safe?”

State Sen. Norm Needleman, a Democrat representing lower Connecticut River towns like Essex and Old Saybrook, called the reaction to the bill a “gift” for Republicans who, in his opinion, have nothing else to run on.

“Moving it forward in a special session was a very hard thing for a lot of Democrats to do, but we did it because we thought it was right,” Needleman said. “Playing politics with it now, which is what Sen. Fasano is doing, may make a good sound bite for him, but in reality, it’s just inflaming more issues, and I think it’s not something that the public in Connecticut is going to fall for.”

Needleman and Doucette, the Glastonbury Democrat, recognize the frustration of law enforcement in the time since the reform effort passed. Doucette said he’s kept in touch with local police chiefs, who have suggested amending parts of the act concerning police accountability.

“That goes to the implementation of the measures in the bill, and I’m happy to have those discussions and entertain those amendments,” he said.

Gov. Ned Lamont opposes the idea of the amendments coming up during the planned special session this fall, so any changes to the police reform law will likely have to wait until after voters weigh in on Election Day, Nov. 3.

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