This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in The Connecticut Mirror.
At the height of the 2020 uprising for Black lives, thousands of Connecticut residents were in the streets asking lawmakers to act to stop policing from killing more Black people. The General Assembly responded by passing a first step police accountability law, part of which created a special independent prosecutor, called an Inspector General, to investigate and prosecute police misconduct. The legislature’s intent – and the demand from the people – was for an Inspector General who would be an advocate for Black lives by vigorously investigating and prosecuting police when they hurt or kill people. Now, the Criminal Justice Commission has appointed Robert Devlin as Connecticut’s first Inspector General. Any Inspector General would have a lot to prove, and Devlin may have more to prove than others.
To Devlin’s credit, he responded to the ACLU of Connecticut’s survey asking for his views on racial justice and police accountability. Based on his responses, however, it seems unlikely that he will embody the vision of 2020.
Of the Inspector General finalists, he was the most unwilling to meet with communities harmed by police violence, the very victims he will be tasked with advocating for, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx. He was the least specific about the ways in which he would use the Inspector General role to tackle systemic racism. And he was the only finalist who did not commit to advocating for policy changes to make the Inspector General’s police accountability job easier.
Robert Devlin, a former judge and prosecutor, testifies in here before the Connecticut Criminal Justice Commission, was selected as the state’s first inspector general. He is tasked with investigating and prosecuting police shootings.
During his interview with the Criminal Justice Commission, Devlin seemed not to view the Inspector General as an advocate for victims of police violence. Instead, he drew a false equivalency between Black people asking for police to stop killing them and police who want to continue to have free pass when they harm people, by claiming the Inspector General must find balance “in that space in between” those groups.
Even the most vigorous Inspector General would face an uphill struggle, especially when originating the role. Police unions lobbied hard against the law that created the Inspector General position and will almost certainly continue to pressure for even less oversight. Through direct action and apathy, legislators and town officials from both sides of the aisle have also stymied police accountability and justice.
The law requires the Inspector General to be independent, with a separate office from the Division of Criminal Justice and Chief State’s Attorney, but they will likely face political pressure to blur those lines. Disturbingly, the Chief State’s Attorney’s office has already fielded at least one press inquiry on behalf of the Inspector General. While funded for now, the Inspector General’s budget to maintain its independence is also much smaller than that of the Division of Criminal Justice or most police departments’.
Connecticut’s laws, including the use of force standard that prosecutors use to determine whether they will pursue charges against police who hurt people, often shield police instead of protecting people from police harm.
As Criminal Justice Commission member Dwayne Betts once told Inspector General applicants, “We can’t just hide behind the statute. It doesn’t always work out the way it should. What would you bring to that moment? Will you just say, ‘I’m following the letter of the law?’ Or will you give us something else?”
Any Inspector General would need to be comfortable acting as an advocate for Black lives, not as a passive referee who looks to the current rules and claims they have no power to instigate change. In the process, they need to confront a culture in which prosecutors regularly lobby on bills but claim they are apolitical. The Office of the Chief State’s Attorney lobbies on budgetary and criminal justice bills – they have an entire staff position dedicated to this task. But when asked in an ACLU survey about whether he would support certain policies, the Chief State’s Attorney frequently would not answer yes or no, instead claiming it was “the purview of the legislature.”
Troublingly and similarly, when asked about whether he would support police accountability policies, Devlin did not say yes or no, but said it was up to “the General Assembly and the Governor.” The Inspector General must see himself as a change agent, and it’s worrisome if Devlin does not.
If anything, Devlin’s appointment makes clear what was already obvious: legislators and town officials need to do more to end police violence, which most harms Black people. Even the best Inspector General could not make up for the fact that the state, towns, and cities continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into policing each year at the expense of valuable public services like jobs, housing, mental healthcare, addiction treatment and services, public health overall, and local neighborhood schools.
Inspector General Devlin has a lot to prove, and I hope he overcomes his initial reluctance to fulfill the 2020 vision of an Inspector General who advocates for Black Lives. We need a robust Inspector General pursuing police accountability, and the challenges facing this role make clear that local and statewide elected officials also need to do more.