NORWALK, Conn. — Differences continue, after State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) met with Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik to discuss his account of a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” at the police headquarters.
“I hope that the chief’s actions will help the community to move forward in a way that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anybody else and this is viewed as a moment when they can do some soul searching and they can grow,” Duff said.
Kulhawik said, “Now that I have been able to discuss the incident with him in detail, I can complete my review and determine what action needs to be taken moving forward. While we agreed to disagree on certain points, I did agree that I am always looking for ways to improve the department and value any suggestions towards that end.”
Duff and Kulhawik met at Duff’s house Friday to address Duff’s allegations of being “mistreated and spat at” this summer in a meeting with Norwalk Police officers, who were upset about the police accountability bill that the legislature went on to pass. They talked for two hours, according to Duff.
“It was a frank and honest discussion. We’ve known each other for long time, and I felt that I could say exactly what I thought of the situation and what was on my mind,” Duff said.
In a series of social media posts about the events of July 24, Duff said last week that “police came out from the back of the station and looked as if they were going to surround my car. Whether that was their intention or not, I don’t know, but it appeared to be another bullying and intimidation tactic.”
Duff said that was one of the final points he made to Kulhawik: “The fact, that they think that that’s OK to come out in force like that as I’m leaving the parking lot, it shows kind of the root cause of the problem. To me, that’s the denominator, when officers think that it’s OK to come out as a group where somebody’s parked to intimidate or to bully and they don’t see a problem with that. That’s the problem.”
He continued, “I said unless every time somebody leaves that public parking lot, 30 cops come out, then we don’t have a problem. But I doubt that’s the case.”
Police headquarters security video shows 12 police officers in the parking lot. Sgt. Salvatore Calise said he told the men to stay on the sidewalk.
Duff on Saturday stood by his description of 30 officers. He spoke of camera angles and said there were more officers in the doorway, waiting to come out.
Sgt. David O’Connor, police union president, said there were 12 officers and none of them stepped off the sidewalk.
Duff’s description of July 24, when he was invited to Norwalk Police headquarters to discuss the pending bill with the police union executive board, includes passing police officers on his way in and them saying, “What the f**k is he doing here?” After the discussion, he was outside talking with one officer and another came out and spat on the nearby steps, he said. He could see other officers behind him.
It’s “undeniable” that the officer spitting “was not our finest moment,” but he spit on the ground, not at Duff, O’Connor said.
“We could have done better, and we should have done better. But I think we feel somewhat betrayed by someone who portrayed themselves as our friend. And now we realize that we were just used by him as a prop,” O’Connor said.
Duff is “the guy who showed up at our award ceremonies and our banquets and our promotional ceremonies and wished us all the best and we appreciated that,” O’Connor said. “And then it turns out that it’s all just a political prop, just to garner votes.”
Duff declined to respond to that.
Mayor Harry Rilling said, “I to believe this should be handled at the table rather than in the press.”
He said, “I have offered to meet with Senator Duff, the chief and the police union in order to bring this to closure once and for all. …We look forward to resolving this in an amicable way.”
NancyOnNorwalk asked O’Connor what police object to in the police accountability bill, signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on July 31.
“We have worked long and hard to make Norwalk a much, much better place than it was back in the 80s. And now we can’t do it anymore,” because since police are less protected from lawsuits, they “can’t take a chance,” O’Connor said.
“You can’t ask for consent, we can’t identify other people in a motor vehicle. We can be decertified for acting in a way that disparages police work. There’s a lot of things in this bill, a lot of things that are not good for us,” he said.
The bill revamps and empowers the Police Officers Training and Standards Council, giving it the authority to decertify a police officer — revoking a necessary credential for employment. POST, as the Council is commonly known, also would play a large role in shaping training for every police agency in Connecticut, including the State Police, and help set policies on crowd control and the use of force. Kulhawik is on the Council.
Democrats and Republicans differ on their interpretation of the “qualified immunity” clause in the bill.
“Unfortunately, there is some misinformation on parts of the bill including qualified immunity,” Duff wrote in an opinion published by Medium. “An officer will continue to have qualified immunity unless they commit an act that is either illegal or violates the state Constitution, for which they did not have an objectively good faith belief the act did not violate the law.”
He continued, “In my opinion that is a high bar and I don’t see how anyone would want to defend an officer from being responsible for violating the law in such an extreme and egregious way. We don’t want taxpayers to pay for intentional wrongdoing and this bill ensures that.”
Senate Republican President Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said it’s a “myth” that the bill doesn’t eliminate qualified immunity for police.
“Qualified immunity for good police officers is effectively gone,” Fasano wrote. “Police officers can be personally sued if a court determines they acted in a ‘willful, wanton or reckless manner.’ The definition of ‘willful’ is completely open to interpretation by the court, putting officers at risk for lawsuits with no ability to dismiss frivolous claims early.”
Then, “Even if an officer is found to have not acted willfully, wantonly or recklessly, the municipality — and therefore taxpayers — will still be held liable,” Fasano wrote. “Faced with large legal fees even in frivolous cases, municipalities will be economically forced to settle many cases, leaving blemishes on good officers’ records without ever giving them the chance to prove no wrongdoing.”
“We keep hearing people say qualified immunity as a defense is being eliminated. That is false,” said State Rep. Steve Stafstrom (D-District 129), one of the bill’s chief architects. “Officers face little additional risk of being sued under this bill.”
As the bill worked its way through the Statehouse, police officers protested en masse, claiming the end of governmental, or qualified, immunity in State courts would make police unable, or unwilling, to do their jobs. They warned that officers would second-guess decisions in situations where they need to act quickly, and that those who could leave or retire from the profession, would. They also said it would hinder recruitment efforts, potentially undercutting another section of the bill that attempts to draw more people of color into police forces across the state.
Advocates argued that ending immunity would help families affected by police violence and provide a means for them to be compensated for their loss. They also said the potential for hefty lawsuits could discourage police departments from keeping on their payrolls those officers who routinely commit misconduct.
“Let me be clear that in this process no one ever spoke negatively about police or failed to recognize the hard work they do or how police have an important role in our communities,” Duff’s editorial said. “I’ve always strongly supported our local and state police and value the work they do each and every day. My record is crystal clear in that regard. This is about recognizing the awesome power they have and creating polices that provide more confidence and fairness in our communities for ALL of our residents.”
O’Connor said last week that he was perplexed as to why Duff was protesting the July 24 incident now, after initially seeming to take in stride.
On Saturday, Duff said he called Kulhawik right away.
“I said I just had the most awful experience the police department. Do you want to know more about it? You should investigate,” Duff recalled.
He also called Rilling to let him know, but couldn’t get in touch with him, Duff said.
He told no one else, but within a week, “I had gotten calls from around the state…people in eastern Connecticut and Hartford calling to apologize,” Duff said.
Republicans charge that Duff went public with the accusations because he knew the police union would endorse his Republican opponent, Elisavet “Ellie” Kousidis.
Duff said that the Senate hadn’t voted on the bill when he went to Norwalk Police headquarters on July 24, the day after the House passed it.
“I would have had every right to say something on the Senate floor for the vote on Tuesday,” Duff said. A possible endorsement “never crossed my mind.”
It’s public due to his response to a communication from O’Connor, Duff said. O’Connor texted, saying, “I’m guessing you would not be interested. But I’m writing you to our general membership meeting on Sept. 10. We will be speaking to both candidates running for your office and selecting one to endorse. Please let me know if you intend to attend,” according to Duff.
That’s when he sent the letter that became public, Duff said. He copied Rilling, Kulhawik and union leaders of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
“At that point, it was just a matter of time before it got out,” Duff said.
Duff’s letter to O’Connor said, “It is simply astonishing that your first communication to me since I was with you last on Friday, July 24, 2020 at the Norwalk Police Station was a request that I do something for you rather than an apology from you for the way I was mistreated and spat at during my last meeting with your members… you asked if I would like to come to the department to seek the Norwalk Police Union’s endorsement. Let me be clear: my answer is no. I did not ask for it, I do not want it and I would not accept it.”
NancyOnNorwalk reporter Harold F. Cobin and Connecticut Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.