No one should die or be harmed by police, and police should not be able to hide the number of times they hurt, kill, or threaten people. And while transparency about police uses of force will not bring back people killed by police or prevent police violence, it is a critical tool for exposing injustice and enabling Connecticut to take democratic control over police.
For years, the ACLU of Connecticut has been calling on the Connecticut General Assembly to require the state to collect information about every time police hurt, kill, or chase someone. This year, Connecticut’s legislature finally passed a bill that represents a first step toward police transparency.
Information is power, and this transparency bill is a necessary step – but only the first step – toward placing power over police squarely where it belongs: with the people. Too often, it has taken public pressure and legal action for police to release body or dashboard camera footage they do not like.
Senate Bill 380, a bill amended to create police transparency requirements, will require: police to publicly release body camera and dashboard camera recordings, upon request from a member of the public, within 96 hours after a police employee uses force against a person or if the police employee is under disciplinary investigation for the recorded incident; all Connecticut police departments to submit annual use of force reports, including the underlying incident reports for every time police use force against someone, to the state; the expansion of the state’s definition of a police “use of force” to include police motor vehicle chases and chokeholds; prosecutors to give a preliminary report to the legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committees five days after the cause of death determination for someone who has been killed by police; and prosecutors to investigate every time police kill someone or use deadly force. The bill also prohibits police from shooting into or at, or standing in front of, a fleeing vehicle in most cases, requires police who are entering another jurisdiction during a police pursuit to notify the local police department, and creates a task force to study Connecticut’s laws governing police uses of force.
The bill represents a significant improvement over current law, under which people have terrifyingly little information available about when police, who are government employees, hurt or kill people in Connecticut. Existing Connecticut law only requires the state to track and publicly release information regarding police taser use, not other kinds of force. Those reports show that of the people in Connecticut whom police tased or threatened to tase in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available), 80 percent were unarmed, 49 percent were experiencing a mental health crisis, and 56 percent were people of color. Based on a recent news report, police have fatally shot at least 24 people in Connecticut since 2013. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2017, at least 6 people died in Connecticut after police vehicle pursuits -- a significant increase from years past.
S.B. 380 is also a step forward for other kinds of transparency about police. By requiring police to release body and dashboard camera footage within 96 hours of police hurting someone, with privacy protections for bystanders and victims of police violence, this law takes a critical first step toward making police body cameras tools to serve the public instead of police PR goals.
While current Connecticut law requires prosecutors to investigate when police shoot, or otherwise use physical force, and kill someone, it does not set a timeframe for when prosecutors need to release any information to the public – right now, on average, prosecutors take 14 months to release their reports about fatal shootings by police. The bill’s requirement for prosecutors to investigate every time police use deadly force and establishing a timeline for prosecutors to release some initial information is therefore an improvement, albeit an incomplete one, over current law.
Although people can try to get information about police through Freedom of Information Act requests, that process is not easy, and police regularly challenge those requests. When our client’s son, Zoe Dowdell, was shot and killed by police, we had to take legal action to try to get basic information from the New Britain Police Department and Connecticut State Police. It took more than a year for Zoe Dowdell’s family to get the information they sought from police about what happened to their son. No family should have to go through what the Dowdell family has gone through.
The ACLU of Connecticut will be watching closely to ensure this bill, should it be signed into law, is implemented correctly. This is an important step forward for police transparency, and we will continue to fight for comprehensive police accountability and an end to police violence and injustice.