Police rally against accountability bill cut short after BLM protesters arrive

Fairfield — A demonstration hosted by police and government officials questioning the proposed police reform bill was cut short Monday after competing protesters arrived on the scene and chanted over the scheduled speakers.

The demonstration was called by Fairfield County police leadership and elected officials to share their concerns about H.B. No. 6004, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week and has moved to the Senate.

The legislation came after months of protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The death sparked demonstrations around the country over police brutality, specifically toward people of color.

More than 50 people assembled in front of the Fairfield police headquarters Monday to show their support. A list of scheduled speakers included local elected officials and the police chiefs of Fairfield, Trumbull, Greenwich and Darien.

Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said officers in the Fairfield Police Department expressed serious concerns with some of the language included in the bill, adding that they felt it would affect their ability to do their jobs and protect the community.

Kupchick said she supported the sections regarding additional training, education, mental health screenings and accountability for law enforcement. She said her primary concern was the impact the bill would have on public safety.

As the first selectwoman started to discuss the elimination of qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects government officials from lawsuits, a man in the crowd shouted an allegation that the Fairfield police did not follow up on a hit-and-run involving his friend. People in the audience began to shout at the man, and Kupchick asked for people to save their questions and comments until the end of the event.

Kupchick said the removal of qualified immunity would make it hard to recruit and retain police officers, adding that it could put a large financial restraint on Fairfield. She asked that the state Senate “pause” the bill until the legislature reconvenes for a special session in September.

“There is no rush to vote,” she said. “Considering the qualified immunity piece doesn’t even go into effect until July 2021, we have time to get this right. A bill of this magnitude, with such broad implications, should not be rushed through in a three-week process and voted on in the middle of the night — literally.”

Toward the end of her statement, a group of about 50 protesters who showed up after the beginning of the 4 p.m. event began shouting “Black lives matter,” “arrest killer cops” and “no justice, no peace.”

Emma Bella Bass-Lawrence, a Fairfield resident and Black Lives Matter protester who was at the event, said police need to be held accountable, adding that police brutality and racism are an epidemic in the United States. She said ending qualified immunity would hold police officers to the same standards as all public servants.

“This bill is what Connecticut needs to have: a good police system that serves the community,” Bass-Lawrence said.

Another attendee asked Bass-Lawrence what she would do when the bill made it so police did not respond to calls for service. Bass-Lawrence responded that the legislation would not result in that, but the woman turned and walked away. Bass-Lawrence said there was a lot of misinformation surrounding the issue.

“I think it’s just important to listen to legislators, actually read the content of the bill... and figure out what’s actually going on,” she said.

Fairfield Police Chief Christopher Lyddy said the bill, if enacted, would have immediate and lasting impacts on the community’s safety. He said his department agrees that systemic change in the criminal justice system are needed to make it more equitable for everyone.

“But this type of reform does not come in two weeks,” Lyddy said, referencing the short period of time in which the bill was constructed. “Major reforms to the criminal justice system should not be happening overnight, and should not be rushed by legislative bodies without diligent collaboration between them and the police.”

Lyddy also said the bill could impact police application and retention rates, and could result in early retirements without enough qualified personnel to replace those leaving. He also said the wording in the legislation would add restrictions that would hinder police investigations and shift policing from proactive to reactive.

Byron Bigelow, a Bridgeport resident and one of the Black Lives Matter protesters, said while the legislation was very important to him, he did not support it because he felt there were too many loopholes in it.

“It went from qualified immunity to good faith to governmental immunity,” Bigelow said. “That’s change of ownership to me. They’re not abolishing qualified immunity, which is allowing a lot of cops to get away with murder. All they have to say is: ‘In my good faith, I killed that man.’ It’s the same thing as my life is in danger. Nothing has changed, just the lingo.”

By the time the fifth of 11 scheduled speakers finished, those on the podium could not be heard over the protesters. Fairfield police Capt. Robert Kalamaras took to the podium to say the event was over.

Bigelow said that was their problem.

“Y’all got a mic. We have a bullhorn,” he said. “Turn your volume up.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said speakers included the police chiefs of Newtown, Fairfield, Trumbull, Greenwich and Darien. It has been updated to clarify they were on a list of scheduled speakers provided by the Fairfield Police Department as the event was cut short due to protests. In addition, Newtown Police Chief James Viadero said while he was invited, he did not attend due to other commitments and said he did not know why he was on the agenda.