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Stefanowski takes aim at CT police accountability law

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski and his running mate, Laura Devlin.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski and his running mate, Laura Devlin.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s plan to make Connecticut safer from crime turns on revising use-of-force standards and other elements of the police accountability law adopted in 2020 in response to outrage over the police killing of George Floyd.

Contradicting statistics and research, Stefanowski said Thursday crime was “out of control” and Connecticut’s two-year-old accountability law, which bans chokeholds and clarifies standards for fatal force, is the main cause of police recruiting difficulties that were documented prior to 2020.

At a press conference outside the state Capitol, Stefanowski and his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, outlined “S.A.F.E.,” a policy amounting to three bullet pointson increasing immunity for police from liability in civil cases, and loosening standards for police use of force and searches conducted by consent.

“What I can tell you is the people in this state do not feel safer,” Devlin said. “Carjackings are becoming the norm. Your car stolen out of your driveway has become the norm. Shots fired in neighborhoods is starting to become the norm in suburbia.”

“I don’t think we’re stoking fear,” Stefanowski said. “And in fact, if we weren’t highlighting this, we wouldn’t be doing our job. I can tell you when we’re out there, people are afraid. I’m not trying to make them afraid. They’re coming to me afraid and saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Their press conference came three days after public safety officials, joined by Gov. Ned Lamont, reported that violent crime fell by 9% in Connecticut last year and as Republicans nationally have shifted from inflation to crime in campaign advertising in September.

“I thought it was a bit disingenuous for Gov. Lamont to take a victory lap the other day on how we're doing fighting crime in Connecticut,” Stefanowski said. “I mean, the stats you hear about are all the ones that are down. The ones you don't hear about are sexual assault being up 23%. You don't hear about the fact that Hartford will probably have more homicides this year than they've had in 20 years.”

Stefanowski said the police accountability law has made police cautious, driving up crime, as has a "defund the police" slogan that came into vogue after Floyd's death. It was quickly denounced by Lamont and President Joe Biden.

"What do you think's going to happen if Democrats say we should defund police? Of course, less people are going to apply," Stefanowski said. "Of course, more people are going to leave. Of course, crime is going to go up."

The police accountability law created the office of an inspector general to investigate complaints of police misconduct, requires police and correctional officers to intervene when witnessing brutality, mandates body and dash cameras, limits warrantless searches, bans chokeholds in most circumstances and clarifies that deadly force can be used only when police exhaust all reasonable alternatives.

His S.A.F.E. plan promises to “revisit” use-of-force standards, and Stefanowski suggested no specific changes Thursday. It would repeal language that limited searches of cars stopped only for motor vehicle infractions and banned officers from seeking consent to search individuals.

On Thursday, Stefanowski focused almost exclusively on how the law limited qualified immunity, a common-law doctrine that lawyers say is often misunderstood. It never offered total immunity from civil liability for police officers, nor did the 2020 law strip them of the considerable protections they still enjoy.

Municipalities still indemnify police officers from damages in nearly all civil lawsuits, and police unions cannot point to any case in Connecticut before or since the police accountability law where an officer was made to pay damages.

“We're gonna bring back qualified immunity and protect officers. We're gonna look at the use-of-force standard — very, very hard for a police officer, anybody in law enforcement, to make a split second decision on what to do,” Stefanowski said. “Officers that are trying to do the right thing should not have their personal assets at risk.”

Stefanowski’s view is the view of police unions but one at odds with the analysis of the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Research.

As the office noted, the law specifically mandates that municipalities indemnify officers from financial loss and expense unless the officer commits “a malicious, wanton, or willful act” — a standard that one of the law’s main authors says protects police from liability for everything but the most egregious acts.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, a lawyer and one of the authors of the accountability law as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the qualified immunity provision took on outsized meaning and symbolism for some advocates and opponents.

“The change to qualified immunity we made in the law was in many respects a tweak as opposed to any sort of wholesale change,” Stafstrom said.

Stafstrom said qualified immunity was not eliminated, as Stefanowski and police unions insist.

“That is false, demonstrably false,” Stafstrom said. “It is a scare tactic that he is using, because he wants to perpetuate this national Republican talking point that crime is simply out of control.”

Lamont has tried to minimize his differences with police, praising the quality of policing in Connecticut during a debate Tuesday. He addressed police chiefs at a meeting Wednesday night, and his campaign accused Stefanowski of misleading voters on crime.

"With crime rates dropping, [Lamont's] record on addressing violence at the root and holding bad actors accountable speaks for itself," said Onotse Omoyeni, a Lamont campaign spokesperson. "This is just another attempt from Bob to throw out misleading attacks to resurrect his failing campaign."

The Connecticut State Police Union voted no confidence in Lamont and the leadership of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection over the Democratic governor’s signing of the accountability law.

Stefanowski said the accountability law is directly responsible for the difficulties police departments are having in recruiting new officers, and he accused Lamont of downplaying the problem.

“It's a real problem,” Stefanowski said, adding “the police accountability bill has absolutely decimated law enforcement. We need to raise the starting salary for new recruits. It's about $57,000 right now.”

The recruiting challenges are real, as are the difficulties in filling a wide range of jobs.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police declared a recruiting crisis in 2019, a year before the George Floyd case became a catalyst for examining police use of force in the United States and passage of Connecticut’s law.

The report cited causes ranging from the public perception of law enforcement to a desire by younger workers to place more value on work-life balance than Baby Boomers have.

“This translates into young people hoping for more flexible hours and guaranteed time off. Mandated overtime and missing holidays with family are less appealing to Millennials and members of Generation Z,” the report concluded.

But the status of police work also is a factor.

“Scrutiny of the police, cellphone recordings of interactions between the police and public, media coverage, and popular entertainment portrayals of police have led many young people to view police differently than their parents may have,” the report said. “Overall, a majority of police officers feel their jobs have gotten more difficult since high-profile use-of-force incidents have dominated the national conversation.”

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