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After Reforms, Accusations of Connecticut Police Misconduct Soar

The 2020 Police Accountability Act strengthened officer regulations and expanded scenarios under which an officer could lose their license. Since that law, 47 cases have been filed.

In the wake of sweeping accountability reforms enacted nearly three years ago, police departments across Connecticut have moved to strip the licenses of nearly 50 officers accused of misconduct, a dramatic increase from previous years.

Now, the state agency that decides whether to decertify officers, the Police Officer Safety and Training Council (POST), is facing a pileup of about 30 pending cases, including 15 requests in limbo for at least one year.

"We will continue to see a backlog unless there is an increase in staff to just do decertification," said Keith Mello, POST Council chairman and chief of Milford Police. "The volume [of incoming cases] increased when the staffing has not."

Data CT Insider obtained from POST through a Freedom of Information Act request shows police departments statewide requested to decertify eight officers in the three-year span from 2018 through 2020.

In the two and a half years since, from 2021 through mid-May 2023, departments filed 47 such requests, the data shows.

The decertification requests reveal a wide swath of misconduct, including felony convictions, violations of department rules, domestic violence, larceny, sex crimes, dishonesty and excessive use of force, according to an CT Insider review of cases.

The most common reason cited to revoke an officer's police power was one or more violations of internal departmental rules, which was cited in 26 of the cases. The next most common reason was the filing of criminal charges or convictions which was the case for 19 officers. Following that were allegations of excessive force, which five officers faced and resigning while under investigation, which three officers faced.

For First Time, CT State Trooper Faces Potential Loss of License

The surge in decertification requests followed a sweeping round of accountability reforms state lawmakers passed in the 2020 Police Accountability Act, which strengthened rules regulating officers and expanded the scenarios under which officers could lose their license.

The legislation came months after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, sparking national outrage and efforts to reform policing.

The law placed new restrictions on how police can use force and conduct searches, required officers to intervene and report colleagues who go too far and expanded the reasons to decertify an officer to include any "conduct undermining confidence in law enforcement" — a broad category that covers falsifying reports, racial profiling, misuse of computer systems, tampering with evidence and resigning or retiring while under internal investigation.

Lawmakers and police experts said it makes sense that decertification requests rose after the 2020 law change.

"There are more reasons why an officer can lose their certification than there were previously," said Neil Dryfe, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and Cheshire's police chief.

Previously, POST's power to decertify officers was mostly limited to a felony conviction and lying during the initial certification application.

Some troubled officers also circumvented potential decertification, as well as other discipline, by resigning or retiring during or just before investigations launched. Some officers quietly landed law enforcement work elsewhere in Connecticut or other states.

According to a 2021 Brennan Center for Justice report, dozens of states strengthened laws governing police following Floyd's death.

The center noted that 12 states now require officers to intervene when they see officers using excessive or illegal force and 14 states expanded the reasons officers could be decertified. In California, 20 officers are facing possible decertification since a new process to strip their license took effect in January.

The Decertification Process

In Connecticut, the process begins with a request to cancel, revoke or suspend an officer's certification that's forwarded to the POST Council, usually by a police chief. A detailed internal review is conducted by POST staff and recommended cases go before the council for a vote.

"The process takes time," Mello said. "There has to be a finding by the agency and then it's reported to POST and [POST staff] processes the request."

Based on available records from cases submitted to the council in recent years, it appears most officers had either resigned, retired or been fired before they were referred to POST. Mello noted it's possible for officers still on staff, including those on administrative leave, to be referred for decertification.

The statute establishing POST responsibilities does not specify a timeframe for deciding decertification, noting the agency must give officers "notice and an adequate opportunity for a hearing" and proceed with "reasonable dispatch to conclude any matter pending before it."

A decertified officer can reapply for their license after two years but it's a difficult process to complete, and POST can refuse to recertify the applicant.

Since 2018, POST closed 24 decertification requests, with 15 officers decertified, while the other nine kept their law enforcement licenses. Mello said the fate of four officers will likely be decided during a scheduled POST meeting on Thursday.

State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, co-chairman of the judiciary committee and an author of the 2020 police accountability law, said those outcomes are in line with what he expected.

"Decertification is not supposed to be easy, so [those cases of officers who were not decertified] shows the process is working," Stafstrom said. "The council is supposed to be an impartial arbitrator. The thought was for officers to get a fair shake."

But Brian Anderson, legislative coordinator for the Council 4 AFSCME union, which represents about 1,900 local officers, said his members don't trust the POST process.

"If you're in front of POST, then your in trouble, and our members don't consider it a fair process."

Anderson pointed out the House and Senate this week added seats for two rank-and-file officers to the POST Council but those members are still outnumbered by the other 19 voting members.

"They will still be very much in the minority, but at least it's a voice," Anderson said.

The voting makeup of the council is a mix of mayors, police chiefs, high ranking police officers, justice advocates, a prosecutor, the state police academy commander and others.

Anderson said officers want bad cops removed from the system.

"No one hates a bad cop more than other cops," Anderson said. "But the law went way too far. It gives the ability to decertify someone under a category as broad as conduct unbecoming an officer. We complained about that during the fight over the bill."

Wide Range of Wrongdoing

The data shows that between 2018 and April of 2023, 27 of Connecticut's 94 municipal police departments and the state police requested at least one officer be decertified. Bridgeport asked to decertify nine officers; New Haven and East Hartford, five officers each; Norwalk, four officers; Madison, three officers; and the state police, three troopers. Hartford sought to decertify one officer.

The state Department of Agriculture requested that one of its animal control officers be decertified and UConn, the University of Southern Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Police each sought to decertify one officer.

Connecticut is one of 47 states that has a formal process to decertify an officer. States without a decertification process are Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington D.C.; Massachusetts put its system in place in 2020.

Since 2018, records show that Maine decertified 17 officers; New Hampshire, 10 officers; Vermont, five officers; and Massachusetts, two officers. Connecticut decertified 15 officers during the same time, with 10 of those revocations occurring since 2021. Nine officers retained their license.

Here's a sample of the types of alleged misconduct by Connecticut officers now facing decertification:

—In April 2022, a Glastonbury officer retired after being placed on leave in March following arrest for DUI, failure to drive in the proper lane and interfering with police. The officer had been driving his SUV on Rt. 190 in Enfield when it swerved out of its lane, hit a guardrail, and rolled over, Enfield police said. He allegedly lied to police, saying another person had been driving, according to news reports. In September 2022, a Superior Court judge granted the officer admission into an impaired driving intervention program and accelerated rehabilitation for an interfering with police charge, according to news reports. He was also placed on probation for two years.

—A New Haven officer faces decertification after he resigned from the force in October 2022, the day the city's Board of Police Commissioners was scheduled to meet and vote on the chief's recommendation that he be fired. His resignation resulted in the evening meeting being cancelled and no formal action taken against him. The scheduled firing was the culmination of numerous IA investigations that found instances of untruthful behavior, various media outlets reported.

—In November 2021, a Bridgeport officer was charged with second-degree larceny and tampering with evidence for allegedly stealing $500 during an arrest in Nov. 2021. The officer was part of a drug task force and other officers noticed money was missing from cash seized during the operation. He resigned from the force after being charged and his case remains pending in state court.

—Mashantucket Pequot Police requested that an officer be decertified because he falsified a document to obtain routine recertification and engaged in conduct that "undermines public confidence in law enforcement," according to the request submitted to POST. In October 2020, POST granted the officer certification as a member of the Plymouth Police Department. That certification was set to expire in in June 2024.

—Meriden Police asked that an officer be decertified for tampering or fabricating evidence and "conduct that undermines public confidence," according to the request sent to POST.

—A New Haven officer was fired in 2022 for numerous violations of departmental rules, including failure to properly handle a domestic violence case in 2020, going to Home Depot while on duty and not helping to close a park during the initial days of the pandemic, according to news reports. He now faces decertification.

Other examples of why officers are facing decertification include theft, falsifying documents, tampering with or fabricating evidence, violating department rules and misuse of a police database.

POST Staffing Adequate?

POST Council member Mike Lawlor said more decertification requests are likely coming and expects the backlog will grow unless changes are made.

"We have five to seven in New Haven that are going to be heading there," said Lawlor, who serves on the city's police commission, referring to officers expected to be referred for decertification.

"There is a lot of paperwork and development of policy that comes with this," said Lawlor, a University of New Haven criminal justice professor who previously served as a state representative and a criminal justice policy undersecretary for the state. "Sometimes it takes money to do it. I see that problem developing."

The solution, Lawlor said, is to hire more staff for POST and the Legislature should allocate more funding to do so. "The backlog will only get worse over time if these things are not addressed," he said.

The POST website lists 13 staff members who are responsible for duties ranging from decertification and certification of officers, police training, recruitment, accreditation of departments, developing policy to match legislative mandates, scheduling gun range usage and police academy instruction.

POST also relies on assistance — most notably lawyers — from the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

Lawlor said the council mostly needs administrative staff and lawyers who answer only to the council, saying maybe two to four extra staff members would suffice.

Stafstrom said he had not heard of a need for more POST staff.

"I would say I'm receptive to a meeting with POST to discuss their need for additional staff and budget support," Stafstrom said.

Expanded Eligibility

Stafstrom said the increased decertification activity shows the 2020 law is working.

"We expanded the eligibility for decertification to include conduct unbecoming," Stafstrom said. "I think, whether because of the law or a change in climate post George Floyd, that police departments are more likely to pursue decertification than they were before."

Stafstrom added "I think the culture has changed on that, too, and that chiefs are much more sensitive to going forward and not allowing someone who could be a problem from being picked up by another police department, and that's through decertification."

Dan Barrett, legal director of the Connecticut Chapter of the ACLU, said it's hard to judge whether the increased decertification activity is adequate to stem problem police behavior.

"No one knows if this is more or fewer or enough," Barrett said. "We the public don't have any idea what the right number is."

Barrett said that's because police control the relevant information. Officers are typically first investigated internally by colleagues in their own department and the department controls which cases it refers to POST. POST cannot initiate a decertification on its own.

"They only get there [face decertification] if their employer sends them there."

He said police controlling their own disciplinary processes has always been a problem.

"They are happy to apply their own set of rules, as we have seen in the past," Barrett said. "That's not always an objective source of discipline."

(c)2023 The Middletown Press, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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