[Note: This is the first story in a series to break down the issues in Smart Justice’s survey of Chief State’s Attorney applicants. If you missed the blog post announcing the overall survey results, we recommend starting there.]
Police violence, particularly against Black and Latinx people and people in mental health crises, has been a deadly problem in Connecticut for years. The reasons for that are manifold, but a key contributor is that prosecutors rarely hold police accountable for hurting or killing people. While the Chief State’s Attorney has not typically embraced their power to hold police accountable in the past, it doesn’t have to be this way – the Chief State’s Attorney has powers they could be using to hold police accountable now, and they could push for legislation and policies to create democratic control over police.
Right now, Connecticut law gives the Chief State’s attorney the power to choose which state’s attorney will investigate when police hurt or kill someone, and which law enforcement agency (which could be a police agency or one within the Division of Criminal Justice) will investigate when police hurt or kill someone. Connecticut requires the Chief State’s Attorney to appoint an out-of-district prosecutor to investigate every time police use deadly force, whether they killed the person or not. A Chief State’s Attorney committed to racial justice and police accountability could choose to assign police violence investigations solely to prosecutors who shared those values, and they could choose not to assign those cases to prosecutors who are unwilling to seek justice for people who were killed by police.
Under current law, the Chief State’s Attorney also has the power to hold police accountable if a lower-level state’s attorney has decided not to. If a state’s attorney declines to prosecute a police employee for killing someone, that person’s immediate family member can file a written complaint to the Chief State’s Attorney or the Criminal Justice Commission. By law, the Chief State’s Attorney or Criminal Justice Commission chairperson is required to respond to that complaint in 30 days to tell the family member “the action, if any” they plan to take. In other words, if the state’s attorney decides not to prosecute a police employee for killing someone, the story doesn’t have to end; the Chief State’s Attorney could investigate further and make a different decision about whether to prosecute.
And that’s just under current law. A Chief State’s Attorney committed to racial justice and police accountability could lobby for laws and establish policies to hold police accountable, including things like the creation of an independent agency to investigate and prosecute police misconduct. Smart Justice asked the Chief State’s Attorney applicants four questions about their views on police accountability:
Tightening the legal standard for police uses of force
Connecticut’s current standard for what the law calls ‘justified’ police uses of deadly force gives far too much leeway to police, because it allows them to use force even when safe alternatives were available. This standard also looks only at the moment when the police employee used force, not at whether they could have de-escalated the situation to avoid using force at all. When prosecutors investigate and decide whether to pursue charges against police who have hurt or killed someone, however, they are looking at that lax legal standard. We asked applicants for Chief State’s Attorney if they would support legislation to tighten the state’s ‘justified’ police use of force standard – the standard that state’s attorneys must follow when investigating cases of police violence.
Creating a statewide ‘Brady List’ of police who are excluded from testimony because of their past misconduct
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must tell the defense teams for people who are accused of crimes about any police employees involved the case who have a proven history of lying on the job or other misconduct. The result is that in some places, prosecutors have established “Brady Lists” (sometimes known as “do not call lists” or “exclusion lists”) of police who are excluded from testifying in criminal cases because of their past behavior. We asked applicants for Chief State’s Attorney if they would a) create a statewide “Brady List” and b) make the list publicly available upon request.
Setting deadlines and transparency requirements, including public testimony opportunities, for prosecutors’ investigations of police uses of force
Connecticut law requires the Chief State’s Attorney to assign a state’s attorney to investigate when police use deadly force. But there are few transparency requirements or deadlines around these investigations, and no requirements for formal public comment around those investigations’ results. We asked applicants for Chief State’s Attorney if they would support legislation requiring state’s attorneys to a) update the Criminal Justice Commission quarterly on all open deadly force investigations and b) present their findings to the Criminal Justice Commission, with the chance for public comment.
Reforming charging practices to check police power
Under current habits in Connecticut, when police arrest someone, the charges from police are often filed with a court before prosecutors have reviewed them. As one prosecutor in New London told the Associated Press, “The police arrest somebody and boom that person’s name is on the docket and there will be a prosecution.” This can lead to over-charging, and it deprives people of a check on police power. It also runs contrary to the practice rules set by Connecticut’s Superior Court, which requires prosecutors to review charges before they are filed with the court. We asked the applicants for Chief State’s Attorney if they would a) assign prosecutors in every judicial district to ensure every charge is supported by probably cause before it’s filed with the court b) ensure cases are dismissed when there isn’t enough evidence to support prosecution and c) refuse to prosecute cases involving police who have a proven record of false testimony, tampering with evidence, or other misconduct.
Below, you’ll find the survey responses from all four of the finalists for the Chief State’s Attorney position.
A Chief State’s Attorney committed to racial justice and police accountability could flex the powers they have, lobby for new laws, and create new policies to hold police accountable.
The next Chief State’s Attorney will be coming into office at a time of increased attention on prosecutors’ roles in holding police accountable -- four people have died in police custody this year, and the Criminal Justice Commission recently conducted an investigation into delays in one prosecutors’ investigations of police uses of force.
No matter who the next Chief State’s Attorney is, they should embrace their role in holding police accountable. The ACLU of Connecticut will advocate for them to prioritize these policies and more.
[Next in our series, we’ll dig into another theme from our Chief State’s Attorney survey: prosecutorial accountability and transparency.]