The Judiciary Committee released its sweeping, 65-page police reform draft legislation last week in anticipation of a special session to be held later in the summer. The draft bill proposes significant changes to police oversight, training, and accountability.
Republicans on the committee seem at least to be open to working with Democrats on this bill, but is real bipartisan police reform actually possible? And if it is, would the resulting bill be too watered-down to be useful?
At a Friday press conference, Rep. Rosa Remimbas, R-Naugatuck, and Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, both indicated that while there were things in the bill they couldn’t support, they wanted to move forward with the process. And Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, gave Republicans credit for trying to be part of the conversation.
It’s good to see Republicans coming to the table on such an important topic, especially following the George Floyd protests, but whether that translates into even a single Republican vote on the committee or in the legislature as a whole is another story.
I’d really love to believe that Republicans would get behind reforming the police. Surely they’ve seen the same videos of outlandish and unmistakable police brutality that the rest of us have seen. Surely they understand, at last, that the police as a whole treat Black people much more harshly, often with deadly consequences. The need for reform is obvious, isn’t it?
I’d especially love to think that Sen. Kissel, who has a reputation as a moderate Republican (and is also my senator), would see and understand this.
It’s not impossible. The 2019 police reform bill, which among other things changed how the public gets information after police shootings and created a task force, passed without a single Republican vote in the House, true, but the Senate passed it unanimously. The 2019 bill also had near-unanimous support in both the Public Health and Judiciary committees.
But the final 2020 reform bill is likely to be much more substantive. Highlights from the draft bill include setting up an independent office to handle police misconduct investigations, negating portions of union contracts that conflict with state ethics rules, requiring police officers with the power of arrest to show their badge numbers and names, allowing municipalities to establish police review boards with the power of subpoena, requiring municipal police to study the feasibility of using social workers in conjunction with or in place of police officers, restricting motor vehicle searches without probable cause, and requiring police to undergo mental health checks.
All of this sounds really reasonable, right?
But if I had to guess, the conversation is going to go something like this:
Police unions: This is anti-police! This makes it impossible for good officers to do their jobs! What about all the bad guys?
Republicans: Well, I don’t—
Police unions: Need I remind you that your Fox News-watching base loves us and believes every single word we say?
Police unions: Now put this Blue Lives Matter flag pin on.
Republicans: Yes, sir.
Such is life for Republicans, even moderate ones. What we call the “culture wars,” which are mostly the far right whipping up hysteria over very mild social progress and any hint of pluralism, are a powerful motivating factor for Republican activists and primary voters. Being loudly and angrily pro-police is close to the culture warrior’s heart.
In Connecticut, the effect of the culture war right wing is less pronounced than it is elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t existent. So even those Republicans who are open to police reform will be under pressure to vote against whatever bill surfaces.
There are reasons to hope that some Republicans will vote for the bill, however. Primary season is over, and Republicans who support the bill won’t be threatened from the right until 2022. Supporting bipartisan police reform also is great general election politics. Also, I believe that the era of the independent-minded New England Republican is not quite over, and that there are some moderate Republicans here who are willing to go against their far-right colleagues.
It’s worth at least chasing those votes, then, just as long as Democrats know that they may have to go it alone to get anything meaningful done.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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