In normal times, Connecticut’s General Assembly takes tiny, incremental steps when it comes to tackling controversial issues like racial injustice and police accountability.
But these are not normal times.
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last month and the subsequent, massive public response to his death has the potential to shift that glacial pace, Connecticut lawmakers say, leading to change that has been delayed or avoided for years.
Those lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans of different races and ethnicities — said they now see an opportunity to pass reforms that were unfeasible in the past — but only if the legislature moves quickly.
“A year from now… I’m pretty sure the response won’t be the same,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
Exactly what reforms lawmakers will attempt is uncertain. There is discussion of everything from mandating police body cameras and establishing independent oversight of fatal incidents involving police to tackling major efforts to address economic, educational, and public health inequities for people of color.
There has also been no decision about whether to call a special session of the General Assembly in the next weeks or months.
I feel the urgency, I feel the drive, I feel the passion. We need to make some major changes in areas that discriminate against people of color. ”
The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color — particularly blacks and Hispanics — both through job losses and death rates, is also weighing on lawmakers’ minds as they contemplate reforms.
The Senate’s top Democratic leader, Martin Looney of New Haven, called the demands for reform in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the racial disparities exposed by the pandemic “twin mandates we have to deal with.”
What role Gov. Ned Lamont will play in any reform effort is unclear at this point. He was non-committal this week when asked about reform proposals he is considering.
“It’s just too vague,” Lamont said during one of his daily briefings this week. “I don’t know what ‘police reform legislation’ means.”
“I think the governor is looking for legislators to come together and form some proposals and then go from there,” said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, House chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Searching for common ground
Lawmakers are discussing behind the scenes how to find common ground on reforms that can win enough political support for passage, but say Floyd’s death may be the catalyst that allows them to overcome normal political divisions.
“I feel the urgency, I feel the drive, I feel the passion,” Rep. Toni Walker, a black lawmaker from New Haven and Democratic co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “We need to make some major changes in areas that discriminate against people of color.”
Sen. John Kissel is a white Republican from the northern Connecticut suburb of Enfield. But he, too, senses this may be the moment the state’s cautious General Assembly finds the bipartisan motivation to take significant action.
Kissel, the top Senate Republican on the Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that the legislature where he’s been a member for 28 years isn’t known for moving quickly. “But you do get these moments of critical mass … and rapid movement happens,” he said.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, a retired police sergeant from Canton who is now a high-ranking Senate Republican, said he’s heard from many constituents in the last week demanding change.
“I’ve been in contact with so many people, young people, old people,” said Witkos. “These are people from the suburbs … I think the public wants to see something happen.”
Winfield, the New Haven Democrat, said he understands that witnessing the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed face down on the street, may be a watershed moment for many suburban whites.
“But I don’t think this is different for black people,” Winfield said. He said that every incident of unarmed people of color dying at the hands of police recent years “is beyond the last straw” for blacks and Hispanics.
Winfield said he and his colleagues are working on both short-term law enforcement reforms and proposals to tackle broader issues such as inequities for people of color in housing, education, employment and public health access.
“If you don’t deal with both, you’re not really addressing the real problem,” Winfield said.
“I think we would be missing an opportunity if we were to limit this to just police reform,” Kissel agreed.
I’ve been in contact with so many people, young people, old people. These are people from the suburbs … I think the public wants to see something happen.”
Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, who is also chairman of the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association, said he and many other law enforcement officials agree that the issues involved with the current controversy go way beyond the actions of officers on the street.
“There are systemic injustices” that include economic, educational and other inequities, Mello said Thursday. He said that although police misdeeds are the most visible and shocking element and must be prevented, “This problem doesn’t start and stop with police.”
A comparison to public outrage over Sandy Hook
Kissel was one of several lawmakers interviewed this week who compared the public reaction to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police to what happened in Connecticut following the 2012 killing of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. In the wake of that tragedy, the General Assembly passed bipartisan legislation to strengthen gun control laws.
“Sandy Hook is a perfect example,” said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby. “I think we do need to move swiftly. I don’t say it should take months … This should be a priority and we should move as fast as we can.”
Klarides said she can support incremental steps, like making police body cameras mandatory across the state, but believes much more extensive reforms need to be passed.
The General Assembly approved a voluntary body camera program in 2015 that provided funding to help cities and towns offset the cost of the equipment and storage of recordings. But much of that $12 million remains unused and about 45 Connecticut municipalities still don’t require police to use body cameras.
Last year, in response to several controversial fatal police shootings in Connecticut, the legislature passed a new police accountability law that included more restrictive policies on police shooting into cars and on motor vehicle pursuits. The law also increased requirements for releasing police videos and other information after fatal incidents and created a new Police Accountability Task Force.
“There have been many things done over the years, things we thought were helping,” Klarides said. “The fact that tragedies like [George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police] are still occurring should tell everybody we have a long, long way to go.”
Legislative leaders cautious
Legislative leaders expressed caution this week about committing to any major reform agenda. “I’m now in the listening and fact-gathering stage,” said House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford.
“Do I sense the legislature may be different this time? I do, but we won’t know until there’s a vote,” Ritter warned.
The Senate president, Looney, said he hopes the General Assembly “will be able to do something ambitious.”
Reform advocates say one reason why strong legislative action on police reforms have been held up or watered-down in the past is because police unions have lobbied hard against such measures. Officials with the Connecticut Police and Fire Union and the Hartford Police Union failed to respond this week to requests for comment.
Witkos said he saw nothing unusual in the lobbying efforts of police unions on reform issues.
“Every union does that… to protect their members,” Witkos said. He said the union’s automatic response to requests for more restrictions and oversight over police is that the “discipline is too harsh.”
If the full force of the community and the state as a whole doesn’t get behind it, it ain’t going nowhere.”
According to Witkos, there may need to be changes in police union contracts to ensure that officers who abuse their powers are severely disciplined or fired.
Daryl McGraw, chairman of the new Police Accountability Task Force, is worried that the General Assembly will fall back into its normal political routines. “The [police] unions are strong,” McGraw said. “My experience has been… everybody’s trying not to step on someone’s toes.”
“It’s a lot of grandstanding, a lot of photo ops, but never [any] real stuff that gets put forward,” McGraw said.
New Haven’s Bill Dyson, who served for 32 years in the General Assembly and became one of the most powerful African American officials in Connecticut during that time, had some words of warning this week about the chances of major reform.
“If the full force of the community and the state as a whole doesn’t get behind it, it ain’t going nowhere,” Dyson said. “My guess is they’ll have some difficulty.”