There was a moment during the Senate debate on the 2020 police accountability law when Judiciary Committee Chairman Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, expressed his frustration by explaining to his colleagues that as a Black man, he feared being stopped by officers.

“I can’t say for sure that I leave that encounter, no matter the fact that I wear a suit, no matter the fact that I have done everything right in my life, I was in the military, I was a Boy Scout – no matter all of that stuff – because I’m Black and because of the history we have,” Winfield said in answer to concerns expressed by Republicans that the legislation was “anti-police.” “And then we say, ‘Let the system handle it,’ the same system that has not handled it to this point.”

The bill was passed along party lines after a 10-hour debate and ultimately became law during a special session in the summer of 2020.

Winfield’s pointed and impassioned speeches often referencing his own experiences while advocating for controversial criminal justice reforms are his hallmark, according to state Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who lives around the corner from her colleague in the area they both represent.

He says what he means, means what he says and is unabashedly unapologetic about saying the truth and calling out others to do the same, Porter said.

“He’s not afraid to hold people’s feet to the fire and demand transparency and hold people accountable,” Porter said. “He’s well-respected and he wields a lot of power. He’s a force to be reckoned with and he gets the job done.”

Winfield, a 47-year-old Navy veteran serving his second two-year term as the committee’s Senate chairman, is known for his candor, passion for criminal justice reform and ability to get controversial bills signed into law.

Winfield has mastered the art of compromise, said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the ranking member of the minority party on the Judiciary Committee who is often on the other side of the debate on controversial bills. But Winfield is not afraid to make clear what he won’t give up to get a piece of legislation passed, Fishbein said.

“I can say in my experiences with him that he’s extremely open to discussions while also reminding us of his boundaries,” Fishbein said.

Sen. Gary Winfield. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Winfield grew up in the Bronx, New York, the son of an at-times single mother who worked at the U.S. Postal Service to support her three children. He’s publicly discussed being sexually molested as a child and admitted that the crime rate was so high in his neighborhood that he often slept with a knife under his pillow.

He joined the Navy to give his sister an opportunity to attend college. He was assigned to the nuclear power program, often referred to as the military’s most strenuous academic program with 45 hours of classroom instruction on subjects like calculus and another 10 to 35 hours of study time each week. After serving for six years, Winfield worked as a chief electrical construction engineer for Alstrom power company which brought him to Connecticut. He left the company in 2003 and began studying political science at Southern Connecticut State University, completing a degree in 2006.

As part of his studies, he interned with former Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, who was seeking to retire. “He came to me and said, ‘You should run,’” Winfield said. “I told him, I like you, Bill, but I really don’t like politicians. I don’t see this working out.”

He’s considered himself an activist on human rights and criminal justice issues for 30 years. But Winfield didn’t take running for office in New Haven seriously until the chair of the Federation of Black Democrats asked him to give a speech.

“You can keep hoping somebody shows up to do that work, or you can actually do it,” Winfield said.

He hit the ground running after winning a seat in the House representing New Haven in 2009, announcing his intention to repeal the state’s death penalty just months before the two perpetrators of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion that killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, and seriously injured Dr. William Petit, who is now a legislator, were set to go to trial.

The mood of the state was pensive and there had been a period after the murders when all parole had been suspended due to the horrific nature of the crime.

Winfield was undaunted, he said. “I don’t know what I can’t do until I discover what I can’t do,” he said. “There’s a difference between impossible and improbable.”

The repeal passed in both chambers before being vetoed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell. Despite the defeat, Winfield said that “at that point, people knew it can be done.” It was signed into law three years later by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Winfield was appointed to the Judiciary Committee as a freshman representative and quickly established himself as a valuable member of the group, then chaired by Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford. Lawlor, an attorney and criminal justice law professor, went on to become Undersecretary of Criminal Justice under Malloy and McDonald, also an attorney, is now an associate justice on the state Supreme Court.

“I would stay to the end of every hearing. I would know issues. I know people took notice,” Winfield said.

In 2011, he was made the House vice chairman of the committee – a position usually held by someone with a law degree. A year after winning the state Senate seat formerly occupied by Toni Harp, D-New Haven, in 2014, Winfield was appointed the Senate vice chair of the committee – another first.

Sen. Gary Winfield Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Winfield’s attention to detail made him the perfect candidate for Senate chair of the committee in 2019. Winfield is now the first non-lawyer to serve as committee co-chair.

“He’s a very careful and conscientious researcher. He doesn’t do things off the cuff,” Looney said. “He informs himself well and is engaged in gathering information to do his due diligence.”

This year, Looney and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, assigned Winfield to be the point person on an ad hoc committee to examine legalizing cannabis for adult use and creating state-licensed dispensaries for the sale of cannabis to the public.

Under Winfield’s leadership shepherding legislation through in 2021, the legislature passed bills legalizing recreational use of cannabis by adults and setting up a framework for dispensaries to open at the end of 2022.

“He does his homework. He reads everything. If he doesn’t know something, he asks,” said Winfield’s House co-chairman, Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, an attorney who also served as vice chair with Winfield. “I couldn’t ask for a better co-chair. We’ve been able to pass a lot of criminal justice reforms from police accountability to gun legislation.”

Winfield had been instrumental in passing police accountability laws that required more transparency and more independence in investigations of the use of deadly force in 2015 and 2019. But he was aware that there were loopholes that didn’t allow for truly independent investigations and most police departments had difficulty firing officers who had been accused of wrongdoing.

Winfield said he didn’t think twice about seizing the moment in the summer of 2020 as the country and the state expressed horror over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, one of whom was later convicted of murder.

The State Capitol was closed due to the coronavirus, leaving Winfield to largely pen the bill and gather consensus through phone calls and Zoom meetings. There was no public hearing, but there was stiff opposition from police unions and Republicans who claimed that the legislation would cause good officers to flee the profession in droves.

Winfield kept moving, issuing a draft of the bill days before a special session called to address the pandemic. The legislation included the creation of the Office of the Inspector General, an independent body to investigate deadly use of police force incidents and in-custody deaths, and allowed citizens a greater ability to sue police by changing the state’s standard for qualified immunity.

More than a year later, the law is largely intact except for a few minor revisions.

At one point during the 10-hour debate Winfield held back tears as he recalled how his mother had passed away eight years before and he now was doing the work that she had hoped and inspired him to do.

His mother’s name, Araminta, had connections to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Winfield said last week. “Although she was free, Harriet’s work was the work of going back for those who were left behind,” Winfield said. “The work I’m doing is exactly that work.”

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