Perillo, McGorty ‘disappointed’ with police reform bill

SHELTON — Rogue law enforcement officers could become more exposed to lawsuits under a sweeping police accountability bill that passed the House during the morning rush hour Friday after a seven-and-a-half-hour debate, and now heads to the Senate for action.

But local lawmakers describe the police accountability bill as rushed, incomplete and legislation that could hurt municipalities’ ability to hire and retain police officers.

“We could have created legislation that supported the interests of both citizens and policemen,” state Rep. Ben McGorty, R-122, said, “but instead rushed a bill that will have unimaginable consequences and will undoubtedly be altered in the next session anyway.”

McGorty said he was “disappointed” with the way the bill was crafted and passed. Compromise was always an option, he said, but was “sadly ignored.

“I can only hope that when we are able to reexamine it, we will be able to reach a fair, balanced agreement,” McGorty said.

The final 86-58 vote, coming just past 9 a.m. after an all-night session, belied a fracture in the majority Democratic caucus that was almost exploited by Republicans, who came within one vote of eliminating the most controversial part of the bill.

Republicans tried to strip away the immunity provision, which could increase personal lawsuits against police officers who violate allowable practices. A 72-72 deadlock on the Republican amendment was declared by Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz after the House tally machine was kept open for 45 minutes, as both sides scrambled for support from lawmakers.

That was not as easy as in normal times. Because of coronavirus protections, most lawmakers remained in their private offices in the state Capitol and nearby Legislative Office Building throughout the debate.

“The bill may not seem that bad to some,” state Rep. Jason Perillo, R-113, said, “but I have yet to hear any police officer tell me that ‘it's not that bad.’”

Perillo said the bill has some good positive aspects, but those good provisions do not justify ignoring the bad ones.

“The bill creates a situation where police officers can be sued, and, in some instances, they will have personal exposure,” Perillo said. “This is scary not just for the personal financial impact but also because it may lead police officers to second guess their actions when protecting themselves. That slight delay can be the difference between life and death in an already dangerous job.”

Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the deletion of the so-called qualified immunity section, which police, Republicans and municipal officials claimed would discourage cops and cost cities and towns even more in annual insurance payments.

Even Gov. Ned Lamont had said the section would be better off removed and discussed either later this year or during the next General Assembly session — if the dispute over immunity would derail the whole reform. On Friday morning, he expressed support for the final bill.

“It’s, I think, a very thoughtful, important piece of legislation that seizes the moment following George Floyd in particular, what it says about transparency, what it says about accountability,” Lamont said. “I didn’t want to have one item necessarily derail that bill and I think the legislature came to a good decision.”

The package will likely have an equally tough time in the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-14 majority, but where a tie can be broken by Democratic Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

With a vote pending in the Senate, Perillo said “the bill also takes away the valuable tool of searching motor vehicles in certain circumstances. We heard from many law enforcement agencies that the loss of this ability would have severe negative impact on their ability to take guns and drugs off the street.

“The bill is also unclear about how an officer is to intervene when witnessing excessive force. It hurts municipal efforts to retain and recruit police officers,” Perillo added.