‘We can live with it’: Trumbull police commission satisfied with new accountability law

Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo

Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo

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TRUMBULL — The town’s police chief says Connecticut’s modified law enforcement accountability bill is more “reasonable.”

Gov. Ned Lamont signed the revised Public Act 21-4 into law on March 31.

“So, the legislature made changes in the wording and it’s, in my opinion, much more reasonable,” Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo said this week during the police commission meeting.

“I’m not saying there weren’t areas for improvement, there always are. However, it still needs to be reasonable for a person to be able to function and keep themselves as safe as they can, while safeguarding others that they’re responsible for.”

Trumbull Police Commission Chairman Ray Baldwin

Trumbull Police Commission Chairman Ray Baldwin

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The biggest changes are to the sections that determine when an officer can use deadly force. First, the revised bill delays implementing the new rules until January 2022. The new rules initially were to go into effect in July.

Lombardo said the delay would allow for new training in use of force.

“The (Connecticut Police Chief’s Association) thought it was impractical to get in place by July,” Lombardo said. “They’re working on lesson plans. Once the POST (Police Officer Standards and Training) Council approves it, people can start to be trained. So it’s a long process for it to be done the proper way.”

Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, who chairs the POST Council, had initially asked the legislature to delay implementing the new use of force guidelines until October.

In a written statement to the Judiciary Committee, Mello described police officers’ use of force as “an extraordinary authority” that carries with it “great responsibility to exercise sound judgment and restraint, using force judiciously and only to the extent necessary.”

Physical force should be a last resort, he said. And deadly force “must only be used to avert life-threatening danger and only when there is no other reasonable alternative,” he said.

Mello noted the term “reasonable alternative,” which appears numerous times in the new law.

Based in part on Mello’s recommendations, for example, the law states deadly force is justified “only when his or her actions are objectively reasonable under the given circumstances at that time.”

But while the old version of the law mandated that police “exhaust” reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force, the revised version requires that the officer “reasonably determine” that there are no available alternatives.

“Our concern is that the word ‘exhausted’ creates an expectation that a police officer will have to progress through other alternatives before they can move to the next alternative,” Mello wrote. “That is not always possible. All other alternatives should certainly and thoughtfully be considered, but the officer must respond in a manner that is proportional to the threat.”

The law formerly allowed deadly force if there was no “substantial” risk of injury to a third party, while the revision allows such force if there is no “unreasonable” risk.

“When we think of substantial, we think of significant, considerable, or consequential,” Mello wrote. “When a police officer uses deadly force by discharging a firearm, there is always a present danger that that bullet will miss and continue to travel for long distances until it strikes someone, something or eventually falls.”

Connecticut ACLU Senior Policy Counsel Kelly McConney Moore said the new law was “an unfounded watering down” of the measure that was already compromised.

“Police no longer have to exhaust alternatives, but merely to consider them,” she wrote to the Judiciary Committee. “Further, this bill allows police to choose deadly force even if it creates a substantial risk of injury to third parties, as long as that risk is not ‘unreasonable.’”

Trumbull Police Commission Chairman Ray Baldwin, who had opposed last year’s bill, took a softer tone toward the revision.

“I think we can live with the changes,” he said.

Use of force aside, though, Baldwin and Lombardo lamented the potential cost for municipalities of the mandates from the previous law that remain in the revision.

“I still think a lot of this is foisting unfunded mandates on the municipalities,” Baldwin said. “Some of these mandates are going to be very costly to communities.”

For example, Lombardo said, police are now required to undergo drug testing every three years when they are recertified. They also must undergo a psychological evaluation every five years, he said.

“Not a full fit-for-duty exam, but about a 45-minute meeting with a therapist, which is good, because it does allow us in some cases an early warning, but there’s certainly a cost for something like that,” he said. “We’ve informed the first selectman and the finance department that these costs are coming, and in some cases, we’ll have them every year.”

Also, every outer garment worn by officers must bear their name and badge, Lombardo said. With 81 officers, that can add up as each officer typically has about five shirts, a windbreaker, winter coat, raincoat and ballistic vest, and many also have a traffic vest.

“That’s a really big expense, believe it or not,” he said.