Fairfield officials commit to reviewing use of force policy

FAIRFIELD — Fairfield officials have agreed to review the police department’s use of force policy, according to First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.

In a Board of Selectmen meeting earlier this week, Kupchick said members of the public had asked her to sign a nationwide commit to action set up by the Obama Foundation. The commitment request was designed as a call for mayors, city councils and police oversight bodies to address police use of force policies.

“I spoke to (police) Chief (Christopher) Lyddy... this morning,” Kupchick said Monday. “We both agreed that together, the town and the head of law enforcement, we would sign onto the mayor’s pledge. I did so today — as did Chief Lyddy.”

By signing onto the agreement, municipal leaders pledge to review the department’s use of force policies, engage a diverse group of people during the review, report the findings of the review to the community and seek feedback. The final point of the pledge is to reform use of force policies.

The agreement comes after weeks of protests around the country and in Fairfield over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

Last week, Fairfield leaders faced criticism during what was billed as a virtual discussion on racial inequity and policing. Several of those in virtual attendance characterized the videoconference with its panel of mostly white officials as lip service and virtue signaling.

According to Capt. Robert Kalamaras, the use of force policy was last updated in 2017. Notably, it already bans chokeholds in scenarios where deadly use of force is not appropriate.

More changes may be on the way after Governor Ned Lamont signed an executive order on Monday that bans chokeholds and other tactics that restrict breathing.

The order also ends or pauses the purchase of military and military-style equipment from the federal government by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, mandates the creation of a web portal database that documents police use of force and revises the state’s use-of-force policy.

Currently, the executive order only covers state police, but Lamont and state legislators said they will work to make the new rules apply to municipal departments.

The Fairfield Police Department’s use of force policy also mandates that officers attempt to de-escalate a situation before using force; any use of force must be stopped when a person in custody stops resisting or the incident is under control.

“Physical force should not be used against individuals in restraints, except as objectively reasonable to prevent escape, bodily injury to an officer or other person,” the policy states. “All officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or stop the use of excessive force by another officer whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.”

The policy also states an officer should only use force when, in addition to other things, a person they believe has committed an offense is actively evading or resisting arrest, to defend themselves or others from imminent use of force, to take a person into custody or to prevent someone from harming themselves or committing suicide.

Officers are permitted to use deadly force, the policy says, to defend themselves or others from what the officer believes to be an imminent use of deadly force or great bodily harm.

“(Deadly force is also permitted) to affect an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he reasonably believes has committed or attempted to commit a felony which involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury and where feasible, he has given warning of his intent to use deadly physical force,” the policy states.

Selectman Tom Flynn said that, while it is great that the officials signed the pledge, many aspects of the committal are already mandated as goals for the task force Kupchick set up to examine racial injustice and inequity. The task force is going to be led by Selectman Nancy Lefkowitz.

“It’s one thing to sign that pledge,” Flynn said. “It’s quite another to actually take those steps and make good on doing that anyway.”