The state House of Representatives opened Monday’s special session with a moment of silence for the nine people killed by a gunman at a black South Carolina church on June 17 and invoked their memory again when they passed a bill to address the use of excessive of force by police officers.
The incident in Charleston was not perpetrated by a police officer, but it was a hate crime and members of the Connecticut legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican caucus have been trying to pass the “Excessive Force” bill — as well as the so-called “Second Chance Society” bill — to address disparate treatment of people of color by law enforcement and the courts. They got what they wanted Monday as both bills passed both chambers.
State Rep. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said the Emanuel AME Church pastor and South Carolina Sen. Clementa Pinckney died because he advocated for the use of body cameras after Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager in April. The church shooting occurred one week after legislation requiring mandatory police body cameras was signed into law by South Carolina’s governor.
McCrory said that if South Carolina can overcome its history as a red state, which seceded from the union during the Civil War, to make a priority of addressing an issue that disproportionately affects minorities, there’s no reason Connecticut shouldn’t do the same.
“I ask all of us to stand up and be like South Carolina and protect all our citizens and give the support to all our police officers by instituting this language,” McCrory said.
The bill requires body cameras for all sworn officers of the Connecticut State Police and state university system. It also relies on $15 million in bond funding to provide body cameras for municipal police departments that apply for the grants.
The legislation says the cameras must be used whenever officers are interacting with the public on the job.
This bill also addresses the public’s right to record video footage of police officers by allowing state-level civil action against police officers who prevent such recordings.
The House voted 108-37 after several hours of sometimes painful debate for minority lawmakers, who were visibly upset over comments from some of their colleagues demonstrating a lack of understanding of the history of racism in the United States. The Senate, which had previously approved the bill during the regular session, followed by passing the bill in a unanimous vote.
While outfitting police with body cameras is a major component of the bill, its opposition among some Republicans came from a section suggesting preferential hiring of non-whites in areas where the minority population exceeds 50 percent.
The bill requires all police departments to establish guidelines to recruit, retain, and promote minority officers by Jan. 1 with the goal of achieving “racial, gender, and ethnic diversity.” The language of the legislation becomes more specific in the next section when it makes recommendations about what communities with “a relatively high concentration of minority residents” should do to ensure a diverse workforce.
The legislation said efforts may include filling vacant positions with minority candidates if their qualifications meet or exceed that of the other candidates as well as participating in outreach activities to promote law enforcement as a career through programs like police athletic leagues, cadet units, and public safety academies.
State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said Connecticut’s cities with “a relatively high concentration” of minority residents are Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Bloomfield, East Hartford, Waterbury, New Britain, and New London.
He said the bill provides specific guidance for community outreach because there is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of an inclusive police force — but “generalized statements and goals of diversity just aren’t getting us there.”
Some Republicans, including state Reps. Richard Smith of New Fairfield and Dan Carter of Bethel, said the provisions discriminate against whites in places where they are in the minority.
“Under this particular legislation as drafted, there would be no obligation within the city of Hartford Police Department to hire white officers even though they would be a minority in that city, is that correct?” Smith asked Tong.
Tong confirmed Smith’s assertion, but denied Smith’s characterization of the bill as reverse discrimination.
“It does not somehow magically, with a snap of the finger, make a minority out of the majority that has overwhelmingly governed and in large part asserted social and economic power in this country for its entire history,” Tong said.
According to Carter, the idea of preferential hiring offends his sensibilities. “We shouldn’t just blatantly say ‘because you’re white, you can’t get hired, and we’re going to hire everybody else.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s very uncomfortable,” he said.
Ranking Judiciary Committee member Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, spoke for the Republicans who voted in opposition to the bill when she said they were not against the bill as a whole but they objected to the section that restricted the definition of “minority” to non-white, Hispanic, or Latino.
According to the U.S. Census, white people are defined as those with origins in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
Rebimbas said using that definition means a lot of minority populations are left out of the legislation.
“Let’s diversify our law enforcement from top to bottom,” she said. “Recruitment, retainment, promotion: Let’s do it for all our most qualified individuals.”
The bill also addresses training and liability issues in addition to hiring practices and the use of body cameras.
The legislation also opens up and lends objectivity to investigations into a police officer’s use of deadly force. Under the bill, an investigation must be made by a state prosecutor from a judicial district other than the one in which an officer kills or injures someone. This is a change both because current law only requires an investigation by state prosecutors if an officer’s actions result in death and because existing law allows for, but does not mandate, an investigation by different jurisdiction.
A bill implementing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiative, which reduces penalties for non-violent offenders, also made its way through the legislature Monday. The House passed the bill after a few minutes of debate by a vote of 98-46 while the Senate approved it 23-13.
The bill classifies possession of 0.5 ounces or more of marijuana or any amount of another illegal drug as a class A misdemeanor. It allows the court to suspend prosecution for a second offense and order treatment for a drug-dependent person while categorizing a third-time or subsequent offenders as “persistent offenders” subject to a class E felony.
It also reduces the penalty for drug possession near schools or day care centers from a two-year mandatory prison sentence to a class A misdemeanor. The charge yields a sentence of prison or probation or both — although no longer a mandatory prison term — and community service as a requirement of probation.
The effort to give non-violent offenders a second chance does not change any penalties for selling drugs in school zones, according to Tong.
“While we are every bit as tough on crime as we’ve ever been, we want to be smarter on crime,” Tong said. “We know that creating a generation of felons and a strategy of mass incarceration of people for simple possession just isn’t working.”