TRUMBULL — The chairman of Trumbull’s Police Commission has come out against a legislative attempt to reform Connecticut’s policing, and opposing what he termed the “knee-jerk” nature of current legislative efforts.
Former First Selectman Raymond Baldwin Jr., who also spent 14 years as an officer in the Trumbull Police Department, wrote to Trumbull’s legislative delegation Saturday, a day after the state General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee held a 13-hour listening session on the proposed legislation, LCO 3471.
“I wish to express my serious concern about legislation being proposed in the Connecticut State Legislature which I believe will greatly impede our police officers’ ability to protect, not only our citizens, but our officers themselves,” Baldwin wrote. “These proposed measures will also make recruitment of new officers and the retention of currently employed ones extremely difficult.”
Photo: Autumn Driscoll / ST
The bill contains numerous provisions, including mandated dashboard and body cameras for officers interacting with the public, regular mental health screening for police, a process for decertifying officers who engage in excessive force and a ban on consent searches of vehicles.
While making clear that he believed officers should be held accountable, Baldwin said any changes must be done in a thoughtful manner taking into account their long term consequences and ramifications.
He specifically took exception to the bill’s language that stripped officers of qualified immunity from lawsuits.
“The elimination of qualified immunity is ill conceived and will cause officers to either not act when they should or hesitate when time is critical putting themselves and our citizens at risk,” he wrote.
Under current law, police are protected from lawsuits except in the case of willful or wanton conduct.
“As an attorney and retired police officer, that language is sufficient enough to guard against improper police behavior,” he wrote.
Baldwin also criticized the proposed ban on choke holds except to prevent death. Such rules sound much better in a legislative chamber than they work in the field, he said.
During his police career, Baldwin said, he once had to wrestle an armed suspect during consecutive shifts. While those incidents would arguably fall under the definition of preventing death, other situations blurred the lines, he said.
“I don’t know, maybe they think bad guys all follow the Queensberry Rules,” Baldwin told Hearst Connecticut Media Monday, referring to the 1865 regulations that mandated sportsmanship and fair play in boxing. “But these struggles don’t have referees and the line between protecting your life and possible abuse is a fine one.”
The phasing out on police acquiring surplus military gear and night vision technology was also a mistake, Baldwin said.
“Maybe I missed something but have hostage situations, school shootings, off road and water rescues ceased to occur in Connecticut?” he asked. “Does criminal activity end when the sun goes down?”
Police Chief Michael Lombardo on Monday said Baldwin’s comments were “right on target.”
The military surplus program had allowed Trumbull to get specialized equipment at no cost to the town, he said.
“We need to be able to rescue people during rain or snow storms with our acquired truck and protect people from horrific incidents such as an active shooter at a location within Trumbull,” he said. “Rapid deployment by Trumbull police officers during such a time is critical to saving lives.”
Trumbull’s state representatives said they were thankful for Baldwin’s comments. State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-22nd, did not immediately return messages requesting comment.
State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-123rd, said she was looking forward to seeing the final draft of the bill, with the Judiciary Committee making revisions following a marathon public hearing Friday.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the final version,” she said. “I’m hoping we find a way to get to something we can all support.”
Ben McGorty, R-122nd, agreed, saying he hoped the bill’s final language would address Baldwin’s concerns “and create vetted — and thorough — legislation that won’t impede the work of our state and local police officers.”
David Rutigliano, R-134th, criticized the legislative process through which the bill had advanced as “rushed and flawed” while expressing his confidence in the Trumbull Police Commission and Town Council.
“Local control is always better,” he said. “If the Town of Trumbull believes there are needed reforms to our police department, it is best that we accomplish that goal on the local level.”
First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, who appointed Baldwin to the Police Commission in 2018, also expressed her confidence in Trumbull’s law enforcement.
“The Trumbull Police Department has an outstanding record working with all citizens,” she said. “This is not about the Trumbull Police Department.”
While officers must be held accountable for unethical or illegal actions, Tesoro said, she hoped the legislature would not make it more difficult for Trumbull to attract and retain quality officers.
“I hope the legislature will work together to find the right balance,” she said. “By working together, listening to all opinions, we will get the right results.”
Donald Eng is a reporter for CT Hearst Media.