Advocates call for policing reforms, as Lamont questions whether Tyre Nichols incident could happen in CT

Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop earlier this month, at the corner of Chruch and Chapel streets in New Haven on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. 

Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop earlier this month, at the corner of Chruch and Chapel streets in New Haven on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.

Patrick Sikes / For Hearst Connecticut Media

In the days since the killing of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers sparked nationwide protests, advocates in Connecticut and elsewhere have renewed calls to reform or overhaul policing.

Top state officials, however, don't appear anxious to take significant action.

"I saw what happened in Memphis, I don't think there's a legal, legislative antidote to that," Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday at a news conference in Hartford. "I think you continue to train and you recruit and society speaks out and you're able to hold people accountable, and those body cameras are one way you can do that."

Asked what Connecticut can learn from the incident in Memphis — in which officers beat, kicked, tased and peper-sprayed Nichols as he called out for his mother — Lamont questioned whether a similar killing could happen here.

"I hope to God it's a lot less likely in Connecticut, that we recruit better, we train better," Lamont, a Democrat, said at a press conference in Hartford. "I think our police are as shocked by what happened as all the folks in this room and I am."

Others aren't so sure. The release of body camera and surveillance footage of Nichols's death sparked protests across Connecticut , with activists calling for an end to violent and racist policing while demanding reforms beyond those the state has already implemented.

In an interview Monday, ACLU Connecticut public policy and advocacy director Claudine Constant pushed back against the idea that nothing comparable to Nichols's death could happen in Connecticut, citing as an example the New Haven man who was paralyzed from the chest down while being transported from a police substation to a detention center.

Constant said what happened in Memphis underscored what she sees as a need to reduce policing and help people in other ways, such as through quality housing and education.

"The only way for communities to feel safe and to thrive is to invest in community-oriented solutions," she said. "We continue to search for accountability reform, we continue to search for various policing reforms, and what played out in Tyre's case is that all of these reforms were present at the time and he was still murdered."

Scot X. Esdaile, president of Connecticut's NAACP chapter, said Nichols's death was part of a broader pattern in policing nationwide, Connecticut included.

"What we saw is what's going on in America," Esdaile said. "It's not only happening in Memphis, we've seen it in New Haven , we've seen it in Westport , we've seen it in Hartford , we've seen it in Bridgeport . The same thing that we saw there we're also seeing Connecticut."

Esdaile said he had once believed that greater diversity in police departments could help reduce violence against Black men like Nichols but that seeing five Black officers beat Nichols had shaken his conviction.

"These officers just did not give a damn," Esdaile said. "And it seems officers all across America — Black, white or whatever — just don't give a damn."

As shown on footage released Friday, officers pulled over Nichols around 8:20 p.m. on Jan. 7, then wrestled him to the ground and beat him for about three minutes. Nichols suffered severe injuries and died in the hospital three days later.

A lawyer for Nichols' family described the beating as "savage," while Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis said the officers displayed a "failing of basic humanity." All five officers, one of whom grew up in Connecticut and played football at Bloomfield High , were fired from the Memphis Police Department and later charged with murder, assault, kidnapping and more.

Lawmakers and community groups throughout Connecticut expressed sorrow and frustration over the killing, with Lamont saying in a statement that Nichols "should be alive today" and that people in Connecticut and elsewhere "must create a more just society for everyone."

In Connecticut, policing has been a frequent source of debate since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and the state's resulting police accountability bill , which reduced immunity for officers accused of misconduct, required that officers intervene when they witness excessive force, created a new office to investigate police killings, mandated body cameras for all officers, banned chokeholds in most instances and more.

While many Democrats and activists touted the bill as a step forward in police accountability, Connecticut Republicans have frequently railed against it, arguing that it is too harsh on officers. During the current legislative session, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 10 bills that would tweak or repeal the act.

"The General Assembly has a lot of work to do to earn the confidence of our law enforcement community in the wake of the antagonistic 'police accountability' bill," House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said in a statement last week .

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have defended the police accountability bill, particularly in the wake of Nichols's killing. Speaking at the Capitol on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, called the bill a model for accountability, arguing that it "makes communities feel safe, makes communities feel like police are working with them, in a way, unlike what we’ve seen in Memphis and other parts of the country."

"I think our police accountability law has worked very well," Duff said. "Ninety-five percent of our police officers work and do a good job, and all they want to do is go home to their families. We should celebrate that. We have a few bad apples that ruin it for the rest of them, and we should hold them accountable, and I think the police accountability law has held them accountable."

For some advocates, though, the accountability bill wasn't enough. At a protest in Hartford on Friday , one activist called for the total repeal of qualified immunity so that individual officers would be liable in lawsuits. At a news conference in New Haven the same day, Sen. Herron Keyon Gaston, D-Stratford, similarly suggested that officers who commit misconduct "should be on the hook for pay."

Constant, from ACLU Connecticut, said Monday that the bill passed in 2020 "was the floor and not the ceiling," arguing that the state should do more to "invest in communities."

"There is always room to do better and to do more," she said. "It's irresponsible of us to believe that we've passed one bill and we've done enough and that thing will never happen in Connecticut."

Reporter Ken Dixon contributed to this story.