Senate approves bills to reshape police behavior
The state Senate capped a day of debate on police behavior Thursday by overwhelmingly adopting a measure to revitalize faltering state efforts to monitor and prohibit racial profiling of motorists.
Earlier Thursday the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 24-11, largely along party lines, to approve a bill to protect citizens’ right to record police officers performing their duties. Senators passed the anti-profiling bill 31-3.
Both measures now head to the House of Representatives.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, who is African American, said neither his son, nor any other person, should be stopped by police or otherwise considered a threat because of any attributes determined solely by birth.
“I don’t want just his appearance, what he looks like because of race or ethnicity, to be interpreted as suspicious,” Coleman said. “I think that is entirely inappropriate.”
Connecticut’s 13-year-old racial profiling law has come under increasing criticism in recent years. Reports from the Hartford Courant have shown efforts to collect and analyze traffic stops in relation to race, ethnicity and gender have failed at numerous levels.
- The state’s African-American Affairs Commission never has met its statutory obligation to file an annual report on profiling.
- That panel’s annual budget, which stands at $220,551, consistently fell far short, year after year, of the level needed to prepare an analysis of statewide profiling data. Nonpartisan legislative researchers estimate such a report would cost about $600,000.
- A recent study concluded that only 27 police departments consistently file annual reports required by state law to show whether minorities are targeted in traffic stops. No one has analyzed the limited data that has been filed since 2001.
The anti-profiling bill sets standards for reporting the information and shifts responsibility for its analysis from the Commission on African-American Affairs to the Office of Policy and Management, which has staff and resources unavailable to the commission.
The new legislation also allows OPM to withhold public safety-related state funds from communities that don’t comply.
Though most GOP senators backed the anti-profiling bill, Canton Republican Kevin Witkos, a 28-year veteran of that community’s police force, argued that while profiling is wrong, the measure was flawed.
Rather than requiring officers to guess at a motor vehicle operator’s race and ethnicity, Witkos said the legislature should mandate that drivers provide this information on their driver’s license.
But Coleman argued this would work against efforts to end profiling, adding that it’s crucial to know what an officer’s beliefs about an operator were when the decision to stop the motorist was made.
Witkos also tried, unsuccessfully, to amend the bill to ensure that state funds couldn’t be stripped from community policing or youth athletic programs tied to municipal departments found not in compliance with profiling reporting rules. “It’s not fair to the other areas of the police department that do good work,” he said.
Prior to Thursday’s debate, Senate Democratic leaders held a news conference with the Rev. James Manship, a Roman Catholic priest closely tied to the profiling issue and to one about citizens’ right to record police activities. A bill on the latter issue was approved earlier Thursday.
Manship had been arrested as he recorded police officers who he says were harassing Latinos in East Haven. A federal investigation into racial profiling led to the arrests of police officers and to the resignation of the chief.
“I just think both these bills strengthen transparency and when things are transparent, it strengthens trust,” said Manship, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima in the Fair Haven section of New Haven.
His parishioners include Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, a sponsor of the recording bill.
“We need to make sure the public is aware of its rights in this regard,” Looney said of the recording bill, “and the police are also cautioned about not crossing a line in this area.”
“Sometimes we become aware of incidents where police officers are overzealous or abusive,” Coleman said when he presented the bill regarding video recording. It provides an important check on the “broad and enormous authority that’s been entrusted to law enforcement agents,” he said.
The bill creates a legal cause of action for people who are improperly stopped by police from photographing or recording officers, though it hardly draws a bright line dividing permissible monitoring from impermissible interference.
But it also states that police officers will not be liable for stopping a citizen from taping provided the officer was seeking to protect public safety, preserve the integrity of a crime scene or investigation, safeguard the privacy interests of a crime victim or other individual, or if such action was necessary to preserve public safety.
But Republicans, those both opposing and supporting the measure, argued it would expose police officers to frivolous lawsuits.
Witkos voted for the video recording bill, but said it wasn’t essential, since most officers already are on camera a majority of the time.
“New recruits are taught to act responsible, because there are cameras on you 24/7,” Witkos said.
Many police cruisers are equipped with cameras, and some officers have them fixed to their lapels to provide a clear video record of their actions, said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield.
“I don’t want law enforcement hesitating,” said Kissel. The Enfield lawmaker tried unsuccessfully to amend the measure to stipulate that officers sued for blocking videotaping would be presumed to be doing so appropriately unless plaintiffs in a civil suit could prove otherwise.
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