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Commission fails to agree on nominee for police investigator

September 25, 2020 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut officials on Thursday evening failed to agree on a candidate to serve as the state’s first inspector general to investigate police officers’ use of deadly force, a position created in a new, wide-ranging police accountability law.

The state Criminal Justice Commission deadlocked 3-3 in separate votes on the nominations of the two finalists — veteran prosecutors C. Robert Satti Jr., who works in the Bridgeport-area judicial district, and State’s Attorney Brian Preleski, who leads the New Britain-area district.

The panel of judges and lawyers, facing an Oct. 1 deadline, decided to send both Satti and Preleski’s names to the legislature for review.

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Also Thursday, the commission approved the appointment of Sharmese Walcott to be the next top prosecutor in the Hartford region and succeed State’s Attorney Gail Hardy, who withdrew her reappointment application in June amid criticism of how she handled investigations of police shootings.

The votes came at the end of a daylong meeting of interviews and public testimony conducted by video conference.

In testifying about the inspector general’s position, criminal justice advocates said they were concerned because the pool of candidates was limited by the new law to prosecutors working in a state system that has rarely charged police officers for misconduct.

“I am even more disturbed that the applicants were limited to those who have spent their careers protecting and enabling police forces,” said Corey Betts, chairman of the Connecticut NAACP’s criminal justice committee. “Too many lives have been lost at the hands of law enforcement officers who have not been held accountable for their brutal, reckless actions. Families have been destroyed forever. We owe it to the loved ones left behind to get it right.”

Both Satti and Preleski said they have prosecuted police officers for wrongdoing during their careers, and they are not afraid to do so. Both called the inspector general’s job important for restoring faith in the criminal justice system.

As the New Britain state’s attorney, Preleski has investigated five cases of deadly force used by police over the past nine years and found officers justified in all of them. He did, however, say in a report earlier this year that there are systemic failures in how police respond to calls involving mentally ill people and called for all police departments to be required to wear body cameras, among other recommendations.

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“The reality is that we as a society are facing a real reckoning with respect to our criminal justice system,” Preleski told the commission. “People don’t believe there’s any accountability for police officers who engage in misconduct on the job. And I really believe that that jeopardizes the legitimacy of our entire criminal justice system.”

Satti said he would follow the law and not be susceptible to public or political pressure.

“I’m willing to take that chance and say, look, public perception is important. Public transparency is important,” Satti said. “But public concerns that are not relevant to the procedure should not rule what the inspector general does.”

Kelly Moore, policy counsel for the ACLU of Connecticut, said prosecutors from the state Division of Criminal Justice have investigated 81 cases of deadly force by police since 2001 and all but two were found to be justified.

“Nationwide and in Connecticut, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately the targets of police violence,” she said. “When the DCJ fails to hold police accountable for killing residents, it fails to value Black and Latinx lives. ... The DCJ faces a crisis of legitimacy.”

The inspector general will investigate whether an officer’s use of deadly force was justified and, if it was not, to prosecute the officer. The official also will recommend whether an officer’s state certification should be suspended or revoked.

The position was created in a bill approved in July in response to the police-involved deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other Black people. The law also limits circumstances in which deadly use of force including chokeholds can be justified, allows more civilian oversight of police departments and allows lawsuits against officers for violating people’s civil rights, in certain situations.

Walcott, the newly appointed Hartford state’s attorney, is an executive assistant state’s attorney who has been a prosecutor for 13 years, including 11 years in the Danbury area and two years in Hartford. The other finalists were veteran prosecutors Stacey Haupt Miranda, Adam Scott and David Zagaja.