As lawmakers prepare to pass sweeping police reform legislation in response to the national outcry over the treatment of Black and Hispanic people by police, Connecticut municipalities are worried about the financial impacts of one aspect of that reform bill — a proposal to restrict legal immunity for police officers.
Not only could a rollback of legal immunity for police make it impossible for communities to secure affordable insurance coverage, said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, but it could also ultimately impose a huge financial burden on some of the state’s poorest communities.
“One bad case could mean tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, all at the whim of a jury or the court system,” DeLong told the CT Mirror. “It’s a level of risk I think many are not going to take in the marketplace.”
State lawmakers plan to meet in a special legislative session as early as next week to adopt several police accountability reforms. Legislatures in many states mobilized to attack systemic racism in law enforcement following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the issue of legal immunity, which bars government officials — including police officers –from being held personally responsible in civil lawsuits, has been a key part of those discussions.
“I give [Connecticut legislators] credit for trying to find a way to bring accountability in an area where there clearly is not enough,” DeLong said. “I think most of this legislation is on the right track.”
But Connecticut traditionally has not limited damages plaintiffs can seek in court for a legal liability, DeLong said, adding that legislators are not expected to set limits on the claims a victim of police abuse or violence could seek.
People should be reading the tea leaves. They should understand there will be a bill. This is a different moment in time.”
More than 80% of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns don’t get their liability coverage through the private market, but rather through a public pool associated with CCM, the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, commonly known as CIRMA.
DeLong said if claims are not capped — and if the limited vulnerability legislation leads to a large number of costly settlements — CIRMA would face the same strains as any private insurer.
The draft bill charges the Police Accountability and Transparency Task Force with exploring whether police officers should be required to have professional liability insurance. That coverage could spare cities from paying hefty bills because of an officer’s violation of a citizen’s rights. But, with the way the proposal is currently written, police legal immunity would end Oct. 1, 2020, and the task force is not scheduled to issue its preliminary recommendations until January 2021.
If the result is exorbitant insurance premiums, Connecticut’s poorest communities would suffer the most if services and programs need to be cut to balance local budgets, DeLong said. “It’s the people who live in that community who end up paying for it,” he added.
But Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the argument that holding police more accountable would produce expensive legal claims is an old one — and not a valid reason for inaction.
Municipal leaders are welcome to discuss problems with the proposed bill, but should come prepared with alternatives, he said, adding that any suggestion to defer action now has little chance of success.
“People should be reading the tea leaves,” Winfield said. “They should understand there will be a bill. This is a different moment in time.”
“It’s imperative for all government officials, including municipal, to embrace their roles in ending police violence and racism, including by recognizing that the qualified immunity doctrine only serves to further harm people whose rights have been violated by police,” Moore said. “If the prospect of paying financial costs for unconstitutional policing practices is what it takes for some municipalities to stop those unconstitutional practices from happening in the first place, so be it.”
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the Judiciary Committee’s other co-chairman, said municipalities already face potential liabilities involving numerous services they provide, and not just police programs.
“That’s the nature of lawsuits,” he said, noting plaintiffs still would have to prove a wrong action occurred and that it caused damage. “The key point of this bill is to hold bad actors accountable for their actions.”
Stafstrom added the measure, which tentatively is scheduled to go before the House of Representatives for a vote late next week, will include language that should remove police certification if found guilty of severe misconduct. This should resolve another complaint of municipalities: that collective bargaining rules make it too difficult to fire such officers.