Justice for All: Should police officers enjoy personal immunity?
Starting this month, Connecticut police officers can now be individually sued for actions they take on the job. Civil rights groups say it will make cops personally accountable, but police unions warn that our streets could be less safe.
The change was the most controversial part of last summer’s police accountability law, passed just weeks after George Floyd’s murder. As of July 1, citizens can sue police officers directly in state courts. Until now, they could only sue the department or town the officer works for.
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Officers worry about personal financial exposure, but they do have protection. Their employer must pay all their legal bills – unless a judge finds them guilty of a "malicious, wanton, willful, or reckless act."
"This is not, 'You get to sue a police officer because you don't like what they did,’” said state Sen. Gary Winfield (D-New Haven), the law’s co-author. “The action has to be willful, wanton -- that kind of action. It's written into the law."
Still, Norwalk’s police union president thinks the new rules are too vague.
"For example, you use force. I grab someone and I restrain them. That's willful,” said Lt. Dave O’Connor. "Those are two of the milestones I have to hit -- willful and malicious. Now I just have to cross over 'wanton’ … If, in the heat of this confrontation, I strike them one time more than a judge deems necessary."
Judges do have ample case law to define "malicious, wanton, willful or reckless." It’s the same criteria federal judges already use in civil rights cases against police officers.
Still, Lt. O’Connor believes the change will endanger public safety.
"It's going to make an officer second-guess how quickly they want to get involved,” he said. “We’re going to be judged by a tribunal that may or may not understand what police work is.”
Reporting and text by John Craven