Bipartisan support for a Connecticut State Police contract aimed at improving recruiting did not hide a partisan divide Wednesday over the degree to which a police accountability law passed in 2020 contributes to the struggles in filling trooper trainee classes.
Republican lawmakers, who overwhelmingly opposed a State Police raise four years ago, joined Democrats in approving a contract negotiated by the Lamont administration that raises starting pay for troopers by 10%, making the department more competitive with municipal police pay rates.
The contract was approved on votes of 35-1 in the Senate and 142-1 in the House, with dissenting votes cast by Sen. Rob Sampson and Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, both Republicans of Wolcott. They said their opposition was motivated by concern for taxpayer dollars, not disrespect to police.
“I was appalled at the way this argument has been framed,” Sampson said. “It’s all about political maneuvering and who can say, ‘I support the police.’ I think it’s safe to say we all support the police. Maybe we have different ways of doing it. Maybe we have different opinions about what policy is best for the citizens of this state and how it affects police officers.”
Republicans in both chambers used the contract to revisit the police accountability law passed by the General Assembly’s Democratic majorities over nearly unanimously Republican opposition, blaming it for poor police morale and recruiting difficulties.
“What we believe has happened is that the full-on assault by the Democrats on police officers has led to very low morale, and this contract is a small step in trying to recruit additional officers,” House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, told reporters before the debate.
Democrats barely engaged when Republicans raised the accountability law.
“We all knew these comments were coming. I get it. It’s a political body,” said Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, who presented the contract in the House.
Proposed bills to revise the accountability law will present a more appropriate opportunity to debate the broader issue of police morale and accountability, he said.
The Connecticut law passed after the videotaped murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020 created a legal duty for police to intervene and report police misconduct, tightened standards for use of force and replicated in state law a federal right to sue police for violations of individual rights.
The latter provision created an impression — one contested by the sponsors of the law and the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research — that it curtailed qualified immunity and exposed police to greater personal liability.
The law specifically mandates that municipalities indemnify officers from financial loss and expense unless the officer commits “a malicious, wanton, or willful act” — a standard that the law’s authors say mimics the federal standard and protects police from liability for everything but the most egregious acts.
Undisputed is that police recruiting is lagging, and the current force of 877 troopers is below the targeted staffing of 1,150.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police declared a recruiting crisis in 2019, a year before the George Floyd case became a catalyst for examining police use of force in the United States and passage of Connecticut’s law. Lawmakers say the challenges seem to have grown.
D’Agostino said the State Police academy can accommodate two classes of 100 each year, but they have trouble graduating more than 30 at a time.
In the Senate, Sampson likened the raise to a bribe necessary to overcome the accountability law and other measures that he says contribute to poor morale.
“You want to fix recruitment? Let’s repeal that bad policy, so you don’t have to bribe them to be on the job,” Sampson said. “The entire vilification of police that has gone on in this country over the last 10 years from the far left is beyond the pale … defund the police movement, the riots across this country, the murders of unsuspecting innocent police officers just sitting in their patrol car across this country. That’s why we have a recruitment problem. It’s not because they needed another 10%.”