HARTFORD, CT — After weeks of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a bipartisan group of lawmakers drafted An Act Concerning Police Accountability, aimed at making dramatic gains in racial equality and reshaping policing.
But the proposed legislation does not include language to create a permanent commission on urban gun violence, which advocates say disproportionately impacts communities of color.
“People are talking about racial inequality but gun violence has been absent from the conversation,” said Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. “We’re not hearing the call from the governor and legislature to do something.”
The chairs and ranking members of the Judiciary Committee, representing all four caucuses of the General Assembly, are scheduled to hold a news conference Friday on the bill which will be heard by a special session of the legislature in the next two weeks.
Floyd died while being taken into custody for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. An arresting officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes during the May 25 encounter which sparked protests and calls for defunding police nationwide, including in Connecticut. The state has seen several use-of-force deaths involving police in recent years.
Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, are aware of the gun violence issue and should be looking at including the proposal as part of any police accountability legislation.
“We ought to dust that off if we’re not making progress on it now,” Lamont said. “Coming from Sen. Winfield and Rep. Stafstrom perhaps it should be part of the police accountability provisions we’re talking about.”
But while Winfield agreed that urban gun violence is disproportionately affecting communities of color, the issue is unlikely to be addressed until January, when the legislature reconvenes for a full session, he said.
“The broader equality conversation is a huge conversation that has a lot of things that are folded into that,” Winfield said. “There is still work to do to figure out what we can get done.”
CAGV was working hard on the issue early in the legislative session, but all legislation stalled when the Capitol shut down in mid-March during the coronavirus pandemic.
The group wants the proposal resurrected as the legislature considers “defunding” police and creating stricter guidelines governing policing, including putting de-escalation before the use of force.
“We’re advocating for a state-level permanent and lasting initiative to put money into our cities to address gun violence,” Stein said. “But we need some type of structure—whether you call it a commission or a task force—and it needs to be funded to find evidence-based solutions.”
The commission CAGV supports would be made up of public health experts, law enforcement, educators and community members who would look at evidence-based initiatives that have reduced gun violence in urban areas in other states, Stein said.
Stein pointed out that Connecticut has no repository that gathers information on shootings, so the only way of determining the exact number of people who are shot annually is to ask each individual police department.
“There’s not even good research data on the number of shootings that happen every day,” Stein said.
According to a 2019 Center for American Progress report, gun violence in Connecticut disproportionately impacts African Americans and the Latino communities. Approximately 56% of the state’s gun homicide victims were Black, but African Americans only make up 10% of the state’s population, the report found.
Latinx community members made up 23% of gun homicide victims, but represent 14% of the state’s population in the 2019 report. The cities of New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport accounted for two-thirds of the 72 gun homicides that occurred in the state in 2019, CAGV said.
The state has looked at the “supply side” of gun violence and created some of the most effective gun laws in the country, Stein said. But, he said, very little has been done to look at the “demand side,” which includes why young people in Black and brown communities “feel the need to resort to gun violence.”
The initiative would examine what people need – whether it’s jobs, opportunities or equality – and provide resources to teach people that “guns are not the answer,” Stein said.
Police acknowledge that in recent weeks, shootings in urban areas have spiked with massive numbers of residents unemployed because of the pandemic. But it’s impossible to tell whether the pandemic is driving the shootings, said Hartford Police Lt. Paul Cicero.
Cicero said the city would embrace any help to stem shootings and gun homicides. But he stopped short of endorsing the idea of creating a permanent commission or task force.
“Anybody that has an idea on how to implement any change to reduce gun violence is always welcome in the city,” Cicero said.
Hartford saw seven non-fatal shootings and one gun homicide from July 4 to July 6, compared to four non-fatal shootings during the same period in 2019, Cicero said. Overall, Hartford has seen 87 people shot and nine people killed by gunfire since Jan. 1, he said. During the same period in 2019, there were 60 non-fatal shootings, which represents an increase of 27 non-fatal shootings, Cicero said. In 2018, there were 81 non-fatal shootings from Jan. 1 to July 9.
“There are times when it spikes,” Cicero said. “Is it COVID-19 related, this year? We don’t know.”
Stein said his group is concerned that as the pandemic continues to create unemployment and stress, gun violence will increase throughout the summer. “By that point it will be too late,” he said. “We can’t afford to act after we see it happening.”