Elizabeth Regan photo
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, talks strategy before a filibuster by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus on the last day of the legislature’s regular session. (Elizabeth Regan photo)

Two bills addressing criminal justice reforms have been signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in a move addressing disparities in the way citizens are treated by police and the courts.

Against the backdrop of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by police officers across the country, the state legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus advocated for a measure to promote a more diverse police force that is accountable for its actions. Known as the “excessive force” bill, it calls on departments to promote “racial, gender, and ethnic diversity” in their staffing and to provide instruction on issues related to deadly physical force, cultural sensitivity, and the use of body cameras. It sets aside $15 million to purchase the cameras and data storage.

Meanwhile, Malloy’s priority was the so-called “Second Chance Society” bill to reduce incarceration rates among nonviolent offenders. It treats drug possession as a misdemeanor and eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug possession. It also speeds up parole hearings for low-risk inmates and eases the process by which ex-offenders earn a full pardon.

Rep. Bruce Morris, a Norwalk Democrat who heads the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Governor’s signature on bills addressing police brutality and failed drug policy represent a “historic moment.”

Morris characterized the two new laws as the first steps in reversing decades of institutionalized discrimination. He said it’s a victory for the minority residents his caucus represents, but the benefits are universal.

“These two laws promote government transparency, accountability, health and safety of all our citizens — goals that should unite all of us,” Morris said.

While he credited Malloy with taking the lead on the Second Chance legislation, Morris said it was the support of the 28-member Black and Puerto Rican Caucus that pushed the excessive force bill to its ultimate passage.

About an hour and a half before the legislature’s regular session ended on June 3, neither piece of legislation had been brought up on the House floor. With time running out, members of the caucus began to mount a filibuster while the House debated unrelated legislation to define what is considered a Connecticut-grown product. The filibuster got the attention of legislative leadership and it wasn’t long before the Black and Puerto Rican caucus was included in discussions regarding the call to special session, during which the measure was ultimately approved by the General Assembly last week.

The filibuster was a “planned and sustained effort” that showed a wholesale commitment to making sure the bill did not die on the floor, according to Morris. It was so important to every member of the caucus “that we would refuse to the let the session end without having a second chance to have these bills brought up and voted on,” he said.

Now that the bill has become law, all sworn officers of the Connecticut State Police and public universities will be wearing body cameras by July 1, 2016. The cameras themselves will cost the state $1.5 million, while the information technology infrastructure and additional staffing to support the program will bring the cost to about $2 million.

The law also carries $15 million in bond funding to provide up to $2 million for the state and $13 million for municipal police departments that apply for grants. That means some, but not all, local police departments will be outfitted with cameras by mid-2017.

All police departments must put in place a program to recruit, retain, and promote minority officers by Jan. 1.

A provision requiring extra efforts toward diversity in cities with a minority population greater than 50 percent was heavily criticized by Republicans in the state House of Representatives when the bill was brought up in a special session last week.

The language of the law includes suggestions for how cities can implement changes, including filling vacant positions with minority candidates if their qualifications meet or exceed that of the other candidates. Some Republicans said the recommendation is an example of reverse discrimination likely to lead to legal challenges.

In New London — one of the eight cities with the highest minority populations — Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard said he has not read the law yet but that the department will be assessing the new requirements soon.

“If we need to change any of our policies to comply with the law, we will do that,” he said.

There are currently 67 sworn officers in the New London Police Department, according to the department’s personnel administrator. That number includes 4 blacks, 2 Hispanics and 2 Asian/Pacific Islanders. They are all males. The five women on the force are white.

The department already has adopted a policy on the use of force as of the beginning of this year, Reichard said. It includes new reporting guidelines and multiple layers of review. The department has also completed a “wear test” of different body camera models and is in the process of writing a policy governing use of the new technology. The cameras will be purchased with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut on Wednesday applauded the signing of what Legislative and Policy Director David McGuire called “groundbreaking” legislation. “This is more than a bill about excessive force. This is a collection of police accountability and transparency initiatives — that civil liberties groups like us have spent years advocating for — rolled into a single law,” McGuire said.

Malloy’s proposal to reform the penal system also addresses long-standing concerns. Urban legislators and lawmakers from more rural communities have disagreed over a law requiring a mandatory punishment for drug possession in a school zone. The current policy is an issue in urban communities where school zones effectively cover entire cities. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty. Urban lawmakers have tried to change the law for years, calling it unfair, but many suburban and rural legislators opposed the change.

As of Oct. 1, the penalty for drug possession near schools or day care centers will be reduced from a two-year mandatory prison sentence to a class A misdemeanor. The charge yields the possibility 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.

Malloy will hold a ceremonial bill signing of the Second Chance bill in Hartford and New Haven Thursday.