Weakening police immunity needs review

Sailing against a heavy political wind, Republican candidates for the General Assembly were heartened by the vigorous endorsements they received from police unions, which this year broke away from the government employee union apparatus in the Democratic Party.

The endorsements encouraged Republicans not because police officers are so numerous but because the public fears increasing disorder and crime amid the coronavirus pandemic and political hatefulness and violence, and the police are the public’s main defense.

Since some of the recent disorder and crime arises from protests against both the real and imagined use of excessive force by police against racial minorities, some people suspect that the Republican eagerness for police endorsements was anti-minority. After all, the unions are mad at Democratic legislators and Gov. Lamont for enacting the recent police reform legislation that was advocated by minority legislators. The new law purports to diminish the “qualified immunity” officers enjoy against personal lawsuits for their conduct on the job.

Police unions do have a lot to answer for. Like all government employee unions, they strive for more than due process of law for their members. They strive to defeat accountability altogether, as with the current State Police union contract, which supersedes Connecticut’s freedom-of-information law by forbidding disclosure of misconduct complaints that have been dismissed by police management. Of course without disclosure of all complaints, management itself cannot be evaluated and cover-ups can always prevail.

But critics of the police have a lot to answer for as well, like their silly calls to “defund” police precisely when disorder is worsening, as if any mistake or misconduct in police work eliminates the need for all police work.

Connecticut’s new police law has several excellent provisions, like its requirement for regular recertification of state troopers and its nullification of the State Police contract’s secrecy clause. But the law’s provision on immunity is questionable because its meaning and likely effect are not clear.

It’s no wonder police officers are resentful, and everyone should be concerned that once again the General Assembly didn’t know what it was doing except rushing to oblige the special-interest politics of the moment.

There is misconduct in all occupations. It is most important to expose and stop it in police work. But police officers are far more sinned against than sinning. If it condemns all for the mistakes or misconduct of a few, society will only imperil itself.

While the “qualified immunity” provision is demoralizing officers, it won’t take effect until July next year. It should be reconsidered authoritatively as soon as the Legislature reconvenes.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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