HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — The House passed four major bills in last week’s special legislative session at the State Capitol. The Senate will vote on all of them this week. With a handful of votes so far, lawmakers are making sweeping changes in response to the current health crisis and the historical moment.
Representatives in the House have voted to pass the police accountability bill 86-58-seven just after 9 a.m. Friday morning. It will move to the senate, where it will be debated this week.
They started debating the massive bill to reform policing in Connecticut at 1 a.m. Friday morning.
The bill attempts to tackle police reform in the wake of national uprisings. It creates an Inspector General to investigate police brutality cases. It strengthens civilian oversight of police,
mandates body cameras, bans chokeholds, and requires mental health screenings for officers.
The part that they were stuck on is about qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects law enforcement from legal action if people feel those officers have infringed on their rights during interactions with those officers or law enforcement officials. The bill changes qualified immunity by allowing citizens to sue people when their civil rights are violated.
State reps vote ended in a tie, 72 – 72, with seven representatives absent from the vote. In this case, the amendment fails on a tie. If it had passed, removal of qualified immunity from the bill would have meant police would have retained that immunity even if the police reform bill passes. However, repealing qualified immunity is still in the bill.
One lone Republican Jesse MacLachlan from Westbrook voted with Democrats to keep that controversial part of the bill.
Joe Aresimowicz (D) Berlin said, “This is not anti-law enforcement but we cannot have any more of our children in this state, nationwide, to be honest, killed in the way we’ve seen and murdered in the way we’ve seen around the country.”
Republican leaders are disappointed it was not removed.
“Once qualified immunity starts to get knocked away at, which this starts, there should be no cop that feels safe going on the road, going to work without his own insurance,” Themis Klarides (R) Derby said. “These police officers are paid $70,000–$80,000, they’re raising families on that amount of money. They’re putting their lives on the line every day. We should be helping them.”
The qualified immunity piece would not go into effect until July 1, 2021.
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Another one of the big topics Thursday: a bill expanding absentee ballots for the 2020 election includes both the August primary and the November general election. There was a change in the language that the Mail House responsible for sending out ballots to voters will be required to do so within three days. Right now some voters have been waiting.
The absentee ballot bill passed Thursday 144 to 2.
Telehealth and insulin costs were two other top talking points Thursday.
A bill to cap the cost of insulin for those who suffer from diabetes was on the agenda. The bill would cap monthly insulin costs at $25 per patient, if passed this would be the lowest in the country according to State Rep. Sean Scanlon/(D) Branford. Monthly insulin supply costs would be capped at $100 per patient.
The bill was passed 142 to 5 Thursday evening. The bill will go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.
A bill requiring health insurance companies to cover telehealth visits through March 2021 passed the House unanimously Thursday, too.
The Senate will vote on both health bills next week.
The longest debate has been on the police accountability bill. For the last month, ideas for all sides of the issue have had a hand in crafting a new law.
Rep. Steven Stafstrom said, “It’s very important we respond to the moment we are in right now.”
The Chair of the Judiciary Committee says he is optimistic they will have a robust bill. But in the hours before the special session began, support on both sides of the aisle was crumbling around the repeal of “qualified immunity” for police officers.
A portion of that keeps them safe from civil lawsuits.
Democrats who wrote the bill (chiefly authored by Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven) want people to have the ability to sue a police officer in civil court if he or she violates their civil rights. Democrats in the House are split on supporting that section of the bill. Many fear it will drain towns financially if they have to hire lawyers to defend the officers. And police unions who showed up to the capitol Thursday to protest the bill say it would cause officers to leave the force.
Allowing people to sue officers in civil court when a person’s civil rights have been violated has been a lifelong fight for State Senator Gary Winfield of New Haven who wrote the bill.
“Giving people what they’ve been getting at…what they’ve been saying for a long time,” said State Senator Gary Winfield of New Haven.
He broke down in a Facebook video when he learned support was fading.
“The fight is about when they use the power against us,” he said.
Winfield says there are safeguards; a court would have to find the officer to be deliberate, willful, and wreckless.
“We haven’t budged on the thing that animates most of the discussion which is the qualified immunity,” he explained. “We see it as important as making the bill as effective as possible.”
Republicans don’t support the concept of qualified immunity.
Still in the bill:
- Citizen review board
- Subpoena power for citizen review boards
- Inspector General to oversee police incidents
- Ban on chokeholds
The debate many say is far too complex to rush.
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, the ranking Republican lawmaker on the Judiciary Committee is concerned: “We all know when things are rushed there are mistakes, which can mean unintended consequences. This is not our best job for the people of the state of Connecticut.”