SOUTHINGTON — A week after the Town Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing a state police accountability bill signed into law on Friday, town leaders appeared before the Board of Finance airing their concerns about the legislation's potential local fiscal impact.
Under the town's approved budget for fiscal 2021, more than $8.2 million has been earmarked for the police department.
In a letter to the Board of Finance earlier this week, town officials projected the initial costs to the town resulting from the police accountability law could be either $245,320 or $186,320, depending on whether a promised 30% reimbursement is realized.
Those figures include the cost to purchase an additional 35 body cameras for officers who are not already equipped, as well as the purchase of 25 in-car video surveillance systems for the vehicles not already equipped and other costs related to accreditation of the local police force.
Officials noted that reimbursement is not a guarantee.
“We probably will be able to absorb some of the costs. The fact of the matter it becomes almost punitive,” said Victoria Triano, the Town Council chairwoman.
“To have this bill imposed upon us is punitive to towns and cities,” Triano said, describing the legislation as “a terrible bill.”
“Of course we were hoping that common sense would prevail, and of course it did not,” Triano said, noting that the votes in both legislative chambers “went down a primarily partisan line.”
“We are standing very much behind our police department here in Southington,” Triano said.
The legislation was spurred by the nationwide and local protests that have been ongoing since the death in late May of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protestors have condemned police brutality and called for increased accountability, and in many instances, also called to reallocate funding for police toward other initiatives, like improving social services.
Triano said that local police have also spoken out against how officers conducted themselves in that incident.
“Any good officer would condemn that,” Triano said, adding that the police officers who watched while a fellow officer pressed his knee into the back of Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes “did not intervene the way they should have.”
In an emailed statement, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat whose district includes Berlin and Southington, said town officials' estimates related to the costs to comply with the legislation “seem inflated, but quite frankly I am surprised the town didn't take advantage of the state grants that had been available for cameras already.”
He continued, “I'm hopeful though there could be another round of reimbursements going forward to help offset some costs. It is important for people to understand that this bill not only better protects the public's constitutional rights, but also protects our law enforcement officers with a number of reforms including improvements to recruitment, training, ongoing mental health screening — and continued immunity from personal liability when acting in good faith as part of their job."
State Rep. John Fusco, R-Southington, voted against the measure. Fusco said he was opposed to the bill at the beginning because of how quickly it was brought forth, bypassing the usual committee process.
“It was too much, too fast and too soon,” Fusco said. Such a comprehensive bill, he said, is deserving of thoughtful deliberation with more parties at the table.
“If we don't do that, then we don't get all of the voices we need to hear from. This has done a great disservice,” Fusco said. “We could have enacted a plan that makes sure whatever direction we're going in is the right one.”
Still, Fusco, acknowledged that there are “some good parts of this legislation.”
Triano also criticized the process through which the accountability measure was passed. Triano said lawmakers never sought input from groups like the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and police unions, nor did the legislature seek an analysis of the legislation's fiscal impact on local communities.
“They did not have any input from real police officers,” Triano said. “Why did they have to do this in the dark of night so quickly? They could have postponed the vote. Right now it's a terrible piece of legislation.”
Triano added the council is “standing very much behind our police department here in Southington.”
“They are highly trained professional men and women. We have great faith in them,” she said, adding she believes Connecticut already has high standards for holding police accountable.
“The administration is responsible for weeding out bad officers,” she said, noting that the town already has a civilian review board.
Southington Police Deputy Chief William P. Palmieri has been a member of the local police force for more than two-and-a-half decades.
Palmieri said his issue with the legislation isn't the call for increased scrutiny of police conduct.
“There's not a police officer in Southington or a police officer in the United States that doesn't believe in being held accountable,” Palmieri said.
Palmieri said Connecticut already ranks among the top five states in the U.S. in terms of police accountability and training standards.
Triano, like Palmieri, said she believes police in Connecticut are already held to high accountability standards. They go through ongoing training, related to diversity sensitivity and deescalation tactics
However, he doesn't feel sworn police officers and their leaders were “allowed to have a seat at the table,” during discussions of the bill.
“We were not allowed to discuss how we could improve policing,” Palmieri said. “If you're going to talk about police accountability, let us be at the table... That's the concern. It's disappointing. Our officers go out and do a fine job.”