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Editorial More police transparency can repair public distrust

May 19, 2019

Two shootings by police in Connecticut in recent weeks, and other questionable actions, have fueled a disquieting distrust between the public and those sworn to uphold its safety.

After police officers from the Hamden department and Yale University shot an unarmed 22-year-old woman in New Haven last month, hundreds of people protested in the streets and many called for immediate action. Stephanie Washington was in the car with her boyfriend, Paul Witherspoon, who the police suspected of committing an armed robbery at a gas station. He was not charged. Whether the police overreacted or exercised poor judgment is under investigation, but the public was understandably alarmed that someone could have died for sitting in a car.

Four days later, a Wethersfield police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old man at a traffic stop. Again, protests demanding justice followed.

In response to these disturbing incidents, state Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven proposed legislation Thursday that would require greater police transparency and limit the use of force.

We endorse Winfield’s effort as practical remedies that can make police more accountable and address public trust.

After consulting with police groups and lobbyists, he drafted the legislation that also would increase the availability of public information after police use force.

For example, videos from police body cameras would be made public immediately after the officer and an attorney review them when police force is used or conduct investigated. This is an appropriate response that can go a long way to answering the public’s concerns about controversial circumstances instead of making them wait and letting conjecture drive the dialogue. Such disclosure is also in the officer’s best interest.

The legislation also requires public availability of the results of state prosecutor investigations into whether use of deadly force was warranted. Now the information is sent only to state and town officials.

Also, when police use of force causes a death the state’s Criminal Justice division will report to the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee with information including the victim’s name, race and details of the incident. Such impartial oversight could detect possible patterns.

Another important aspect of the legislation would adjust state law regarding when police use of force is justifiable. Presently, police are allowed to use physical force if they have a reasonable belief that someone committed an offense. The change would require the kind of force used to be reasonable for the circumstances.

A criticism of Winfield’s legislation is that it is too late for a public hearing with just two-and-a-half weeks until the end of this General Assembly session. This is a valid point, and we generally prefer full debate in public hearings. But the seriousness of this issue — growing distrust of the public in some police actions — requires a response now; it cannot wait until the next session opens in February.

Greater transparency and accountability are positive steps to repairing public trust in police actions.

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