Police officers in Connecticut may soon be required to fasten the seatbelts of suspects riding in police vehicles.
A statewide bill mandating suspects be secured with seat belts in police transport vehicles cleared the state House of Representatives Thursday.
One of the co-sponsors of the bill is Democratic State Rep. Anne Hughes, who represents Weston, Easton and parts of Redding in Fairfield County. While Hughes is pleased her bill cleared the state house, she lamented the need for a law in the first place.
“This is the public we’re talking about. And we shouldn’t have to litigate and legislate for basic humanity. But here we are,” Hughes said.
The proposed legislation is also known as the Randy Cox Bill, named after a New Haven resident who was permanently paralyzed while riding unsecured in a police van in 2022.
The bill would have the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) create a statewide policy mandating seat belt usage for suspects. It would also require police training to ensure suspects are safely secured while in transit.
The text of the bill states POST would be required to develop guidelines for seat belt usage by the end of 2023.
The bill passed the state house with 140 yes votes and 11 house members were absent. The state senate must pass the bill before it gets sent to Governor Ned Lamont’s desk for his approval.
Republican State Representative Craig Fishbein, who represents Middlefield and Wallingford, co-sponsored the bill. Fishbein said cities and towns would carry out the regulation, but POST would be responsible for punishment. Under the bill, an offending officer could face losing their state certification.
“The municipalities are supposed to implement the policy and officers are supposed to follow the policy otherwise POST, which created it has the ability to decertify,” Fishbein said.
No one in the house voted against the bill, but it faced opposition from the Connecticut Council of Police AFL-CIO, which issued public testimony against the bill.
Members claimed the policy would be difficult to follow due to the day to day realities of policing, where officers say they regularly deal with combative and violent suspects.
Hughes was and remains skeptical of that position.
“I think that’s misinformed, quite frankly, that’s misinformed. You have a person that’s likely handcuffed and you can’t seatbelt them? I don’t get that,” Hughes said.
Hughes is skeptical because she is also a social worker and regularly dealt with aggressive behavior, when transporting people.
While she admits getting them situated can be challenging, she said she is able to get them strapped in single handedly without too much hassle. She notes many police officers often work with another officer.
The bill is a new proposal and comes not only after Randy Cox was paralyzed, but long after other high profile cases shed light on instances where those in police custody were severely injured or killed while riding unsecured in a police vehicle.
[RELATED: The Randy Cox timeline]
Freddie Gray was a Baltimore resident who died in 2015 after suffering a spinal cord injury after being tossed around in the back of a police van, while being transported unsecured.
When asked why this bill is only being considered now, Hughes was frank, and referenced two Bridgeport women whose families were not quickly notified of their deaths.
“The legislature is a little bit clunky. And we are reactive,” she said. “I mean, the same thing with the Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls bill that we passed, requiring police to notify families of their loved one’s death within 24 hours, Why should we have to legislate basic humanity and respect, but we tend to have to do that reactively,” Hughes said.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the city’s police department quickly moved to ensure all suspects are secured in police vehicles. Suspects are no longer allowed to ride in vans unless there are several suspects, he said. The policies were enacted shortly after Randy Cox was paralyzed last year.
The four officers charged in Cox’s case, are facing possible termination from the police department but remain employed.
Elicker said the police commission would act but only after careful deliberation.
“I have confidence that the police commission wants to do the right thing and wants to be cautious and thoughtful about how they consider the evidence in front of them that’s been presented by both parties,” Elicker said. “And I am confident that they want to be deliberate and take their time.”
Last month the commission postponed deciding the fate of Officer Jocelyn Lavandier, one of the officers charged in the Cox case and did not announce a follow up date.
Cox is suing the city of New Haven and the police department. He is represented by nationally recognized civil rights attorney, Benjamin Crump.
Crump also responded to the passage of the bill and says Cox’s family just wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. He said he and Cox’s family appreciate the state working to ensure people’s safety.
Crump also said the state didn’t need Randy Cox to get to this point, referencing Freddie Gray.
“It was just so unnecessary, that Randy Cox had to suffer these permanent life injuries, of being paralyzed, for the state of Connecticut, to say, we have to have legislation to make sure that this never happens again,” Crump said.
This story was first published May 5, 2023 by Connecticut Public.