HARTFORD — Police officers in Connecticut would be prohibited from firing their guns for the sole purpose of stopping vehicles, under legislation planned by a state senator in response to two recent officer-involved shootings of unarmed people.
Democratic state Sen. Gary Winfield, of New Haven, said Thursday that the proposal will be part of a larger package of legislation aimed at limiting police use of deadly force and increasing police accountability that he hopes to submit next week.
He also is calling for what would be an unusual statewide ban on officers stepping in front of vehicles, which is what happened in an April 20 fatal shooting by Wethersfield officer Layau Eulizier.
Police and surveillance video show Eulizier running in front of a car that had stopped briefly after fleeing a traffic stop and firing through the front windshield when the car moved toward him. The driver, 18-year-old Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, died two days later. Vega Cruz’s girlfriend also was in the car but was not injured.
“I just don’t think it’s a smart idea to jump in front of a vehicle in that way,” said Winfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “There seems to be an assumption that you must cause something to happen immediately but that’s not always the case.”
Winfield said the proposal is aimed at protecting the lives of both the public and police officers. He acknowledged there are times when officers should be allowed to shoot at vehicles, including when drivers are intentionally harming pedestrians.
Many police departments around the country prohibit their officers from shooting at vehicles in certain situations. Officers generally are taught they shouldn’t shoot at moving vehicles or step in front of them, but there always will be some cases when it is unavoidable, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
“By standing in front of a vehicle you could, one, endanger yourself and, two, you could put yourself in a position where you feel you have to use deadly force,” Wexler said.
Last year, Baltimore County police officer Amy Caprio was killed when she positioned herself in front of a stolen Jeep that then slammed into her when the driver hit the gas as Caprio ordered him to stop. The driver was recently convicted of felony murder.
Winfield has given a copy of his plan to local police officials to get their input.
Farmington Police Chief Paul Melanson, who leads a legislative panel of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said police officials have some concerns about Winfield’s proposal.
“A general rule of thumb of not shooting at vehicles is probably good, but you have to factor in many of the what-ifs such as terrorist events,” Melanson said.
The Wethersfield shooting occurred just four days after two other officers opened fire on an unarmed couple in a car in New Haven and wounded a 22-year-old woman. Both shootings sparked several days of protests. The three officers, who are black, are all on paid leave under normal protocol pending investigations.
Winfield said his legislation also will include requirements that police publicly release video from body and dashboard cameras in certain timeframes as well as submit reports on all use-of-force incidents to the state.
The plan, Winfield said, also includes a fundamental change that would limit police, when threatened, to use reasonable force under the circumstances. Current policies and laws don’t limit officers to using reasonable force, he said.
Winfield plans to make the legislative package a proposed amendment to another law enforcement bill.