Nine days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo sent an email to all employees of the Division of Criminal Justice, many of whom are responsible for prosecuting crimes and investigating police officers’ use of deadly force, and reminded them of the importance of objectivity in holding people accountable before the eyes of the law.
“When I started as a prosecutor in 1993, I took an oath to do justice. I was 26 and didn’t know exactly what that was, so doing justice for me boiled down to always doing what is right,” Colangelo said. “If you think about it, that is what we as a Division should be doing – the right thing. I know that everyone is disgusted at what happened to Mr. Floyd, as we should be, and that we all want to take a stand against injustice since that is our job. However, if you look at what we do, prosecutors must not take a side in the cases we handle. We should do the right thing based on the law and the facts.”
Unlike his colleagues in criminal justice and law who lead other state departments, Colangelo did not use the recent police killings of Black people to highlight systemic injustice or to announce any changes to the mission of the Chief State’s Attorney’s office. Instead, he made clear that he intends to uphold the laws already in place – not advocate for reforms to a system that has been shown to disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic and other people of color.
His memo also reinforced a mindset that was clear when he was interviewed for the job as the state’s top law enforcement officer: that to “do the right thing” is to closely follow the laws the legislature passes, rather than being actively engaged in the legislative process, as his predecessor, Kevin Kane, was.
“I don’t see anything in (Colangelo’s email) that suggests serious scrutiny of the police. It just seems like the kind of thing you say to calm the waters and move on,” said Emily Bazelon, a lecturer and fellow at Yale Law School and author of “Charged,” a book about prosecutors’ power to affect the criminal justice system. “I don’t think it suggests that he’s particularly attuned to the political protests, or the sense of urgency of the moment.”
In contrast, Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, the state’s first Black Supreme Court Chief Justice, was much more outspoken when he tackled the subject in a June 9 email to Judicial Branch employees. In that email, Robinson said law enforcement and the justice system are imperfect institutions, and called on state employees to keep fighting to eliminate racial injustice.
“I love this country despite its imperfections, but that does not mean that I am willing to accept them. In fact, I am ready, willing and able to do the work to eradicate them,” Robinson wrote. “We must double and even triple our efforts to provide equal justice for all those whom we serve.”
Is it working? If that’s the system, that’s what we’re supposed to do, then yeah, it’s working. I understand that people are going to disagree, and they have a right disagree. That’s part of what makes this country so great. But we still have to make sure that we’re applying the facts to the law and come up with the decision that is appropriate.”
Before he resigned, Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook sent two memos to his staff in response to Floyd’s death. The first, sent on June 1, urged that employees listen to others and remember that “every life is precious and deserves to be treated with dignity.”
In a second message, sent on June 11, Cook ordered the department to take action. He asked for two volunteers to lead a six-week study on “the current state of our agency as they pertain [sic] to racial equality and improved awareness.” He tasked the group with presenting recommendations toward “improving impartiality and promoting unity among our staff.”
“Above and beyond efforts to foster inclusion and understanding, I feel we need to thoroughly examine what we are doing wrong, what we are doing right, what we can do better and develop action plans to effect real change and improvement,” he said.
Cook resigned the next day, effective July 1. But a DOC spokesperson said the agency remains “committed to examining its current practices as they relate to racial equality and developing an action plan for the future.”
In a recent interview, Colangelo said it was state’s attorneys’ job to conduct an investigation, look at the law that’s on the books, and determine whether an officers’ use of force was justified. The “right thing” he referenced was for prosecutors to apply the facts determined by the probe to the state statute or standard of proof, then assess whether they could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“So, is it working? If that’s the system, that’s what we’re supposed to do, then yeah, it’s working,” Colangelo said. “I understand that people are going to disagree, and they have a right disagree. That’s part of what makes this country so great. But we still have to make sure that we’re applying the facts to the law and come up with the decision that is appropriate.”
To some, Colangelo’s email is frustrating because it does not explicitly plot a path forward to change a system that, historically, has failed to hold police accountable for killing residents they are sworn to protect. According to the Connecticut Post, since 2001 there have been 76 inquiries into police use of deadly force or deaths in police custody. Although state’s attorneys are not required to include the race of those killed by police in their use of force investigations, research shows that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites, nationally.
Just one Connecticut cop has been charged for using deadly force since 2001. He was not convicted.
According to Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Connecticut, the wording of Colangelo’s email implies there is nothing systemically wrong with investigations into police use of deadly of force.
“I read that email as him saying, ‘Everything’s fine in the land of the [Division of Criminal Justice,] and when these cases come up, our job is to be an impartial partner,’” Medina said. “This reveals where the internal barometer of the Division of Criminal Justice is: unwilling to hold police accountable.”
Bazelon said the message was “incredibly nonspecific.”
“You wouldn’t read this as a police officer and think, ‘Uh oh. Things are changing in Connecticut,’” she added.
‘Two standards of justice’
The Criminal Justice Commission appointed Colangelo in January. The position is very powerful, as it provides support to Connecticut’s 13 state’s attorneys, oversees the Division of Criminal Justice’s administrative responsibilities and plays a big role in crafting the state’s criminal justice policies.
The internal barometer of the Division of Criminal Justice is: unwilling to hold police accountable.”
Colangelo’s tenure comes at a time of increased public interest in prosecutors, who are seen as the key to cutting down on prison populations and diverting people to rehabilitative services that address root causes of crime. Many, including the ACLU, saw a new chief state’s attorney as a chance to build on past criminal justice reforms, and to further reduce racial inequities in the state’s criminal legal system.
Floyd’s death and the state’s subsequent soul-searching gave Colangelo one of his first major tests as chief state’s attorney. Publicly, he has pledged to support and implement policy changes that promote police accountability and transparency. He’s participated in many Zoom calls on policing reforms. And he joined his colleagues on June 18 in unanimously voting to suspend Hartford State’s Attorney Gail P. Hardy for four days after she failed to resolve four deadly police shooting investigations dating back more than 11 years.
Thanks to a COVID-19-shortened legislative session, it’s unclear what role Colangelo will play when lawmakers are crafting criminal justice reforms. He has said he will offer testimony on how proposals would affect the Division of Criminal Justice, but he is reticent to offer his personal opinion.
“I don’t believe it’s really my place to take a position on something that they want to do,” Colangelo said. “Because it’s their function, and it’s their job. It’s just like them turning around and saying, ‘Hey, you should prosecute this case, or not.’”
Take, for instance, the state modifying its statute on whether a police officers’ use of deadly force is justified. The status quo on holding officers accountable is inaction, partly because the legal standards set such a high bar. Officers are permitted to use deadly force if they think they or others are in imminent danger; it does not weigh whether police could have resolved the situation with a safer alternative.
Medina said Colangelo’s email underscores the norm, that prosecutors are unwilling to hold police accountable for killing people.
“It just shows there’s two standards of justice: one for cops and one for everyone else,” Medina said, explaining that prosecutors’ lengthy process of deciding whether to charge a police officer for using deadly force is a stark contrast to how fast they move on cases involving civilians. “Police are doing the charges to begin with, and prosecutors sign off on it. It’s two completely different standards.”
Colangelo said the standard is, in fact, different for police than members of the public. There’s a two-part test in police deadly force investigations. First, prosecutors must determine whether the cop believed deadly force was their only choice to protect themselves or others from immediate, life-threatening harm. The second part requires an officers’ fear to have been “objectively reasonable” when they issued deadly force.
“So, it is theoretically different than a regular citizen and something that they are doing, if we’re looking or making an assessment about whether a crime was committed in a situation,” said Colangelo.
“We’re applying the standard that is legislatively imposed, that has been vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court and Connecticut courts, and found that it’s appropriate for the standard to use, to determine whether an officer was justified the use of force or not,” he added. “We’re utilizing the rules in place for the cases that are coming before us right now.”
Still, Colangelo said it’s his duty to implement whatever bill Gov. Ned Lamont signs into law rather than to publicly support any pending legislation. His job is to enforce the law, not create it.
“If the legislature in their function or duties wants to change the standard, I could talk about how it will affect the criminal justice system,” he said.
A question of bias
Senate Democrats have proposed empowering an inspector general to investigate police misconduct. That could take the responsibility out of state’s attorneys’ hands and place it under the purview of an independent state agency.
“The public doesn’t believe in the system we currently have, and public confidence is important,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. Winfield, who is currently working on a police accountability bill for an impending special legislative session, said such a move doesn’t mean state’s attorneys are incapable of doing the investigations themselves, but many see the prosecutors as inextricably linked to police.
“Creating a new system where the connection doesn’t exist is important,” said Winfield.
“Most of the time prosecutors and police are mostly partners in investigating and prosecuting crimes,” Bazelon said. “And then when one of the partners has to turn on the other one and accuse the other of criminal wrongdoing, that is awkward and difficult.”
The Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, too, is considering recommending lawmakers create an independent investigating authority. Such an agency could conduct probes into civil rights violations, including police misconduct.
Most of the time prosecutors and police are mostly partners in investigating and prosecuting crimes. And then when one of the partners has to turn on the other one and accuse the other of criminal wrongdoing, that is awkward and difficult.”
Medina suggested it could be an oversight department that has subpoena power and examines the patterns and practices of police departments across Connecticut, in addition to their officers’ deadly uses of force. Such a team, Medina said, would “send a chill down every officer’s back, to make them think twice before pulling out their weapon and killing somebody, because they’re afraid of being held criminally responsible.”
State’s attorneys are independent of police, Colangelo pointed out, because prosecutors only investigate deadly force incidents that occur outside their judicial district.
“If the legislature wants to set up something that is even more independent than that,” he said, “it is something that is intriguing and worth looking at.”