Sen. Herron Gaston and Rep. Pat Boyd. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The clock was ticking toward the Public Safety Committee’s Thursday deadline to pass bills and as the panel neared the end of its 39-item agenda, Sen. Herron Gaston stood from the table, made for the exit, and dialed a colleague. “Hey,” he said, “I need you to come vote.”

Gaston, a first-term Democrat from Bridgeport, co-chairs the public safety panel and his legislative priority — a bill that would require police to tell drivers why they’d been pulled over — looked in danger of failing after a midday committee vote. Republicans opposed it and at least a couple of Democrats had joined them. 

But the state legislature runs simultaneous committee meetings, meaning lawmakers frequently miss in-person votes and are permitted a window to cast them with the legislative clerk after the fact. Gaston dialed Sen. MD Rahman, another freshman Democrat, who dutifully appeared moments later to cast a vote in support. 

By the time the meeting wrapped up that afternoon, the bill had passed 14 to 11.

“It was a close vote,” Gaston said afterward. “We have the votes. We edged it out. Some folks who were considering voting ‘no’ on this bill have since then come around to voting ‘yes’,”

For some, the controversy over the proposal might have seemed baffling. Many Connecticut residents assume police are already required to explain the purpose of traffic stops and generally police say they’re already trained to do just that.

Besides, the bill had been stripped down before it was even raised for Thursday’s meeting. It contained no penalties for officers who refused to explain traffic stops; gone were new police training and reporting requirements that had been included in the original seven-page proposal.

What passed out of the Public Safety Committee on Thursday was a simple statement of intent: “Prior to the completion of any stop of a motor vehicle, a police officer, as defined [by state law], shall verbally inform the operator of such vehicle of the purpose for the stop.”

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Legislators spent considerable time debating what message that statement sent. Gaston, who is Black, 34, and has previously told the panel about difficult traffic stops he has endured, said it sent a message of equality.

“It is simple. It’s a courtesy issue,” he said during the meeting. “I just want to ensure that people across this state who look like me, that they get the same treatment that a person in Stonington gets.”

Gaston went further during a public hearing last month. When discussing his own traffic stop incident, he referenced Tyre Nichols, a Memphis man who died in January following a traffic stop and a beating by five former police officers. “In that moment, I thought that I too could be a Tyre Nichols.”

Opponents of the bill said it sent a different kind of message. Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, argued that the proposal amounted to a symbolic slight directed at Connecticut police officers. Hiring and retention numbers at Connecticut police departments have dipped so far in recent years that the legislature was considering separate proposals to boost recruitment, he said. 

“Many of the answers I’ve been provided are basically, ‘We’re sending a message,’” Howard said. “I think that message that we are sending is that we are going to continue to drive a divide, continue to tell our law enforcement officers negative things about their profession.”

Rep. Greg Howard Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Others argued that the proposal was unnecessary at a time when all Connecticut police officers are equipped with body cameras that could be used to demonstrate incidents during which police refuse to state a reason for a stop. 

“It seems like a solution looking for a problem,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said. “I’m concerned about the public impression that it’s assumed that because the legislature has to come in with a law and mandate this that [the notification is] not happening.”

For his part, Howard did not oppose the concept of notifying motorists why they are pulled over (“When you are stopped by the police, who are a branch of the government, and you are detained for any amount of time, you should know why.”) but argued the bill was redundant.

“Where I think I disagree is that it appears to me that we have uniformity,” Howard said.

Gaston did not agree and at one point pushed back against arguments that police already make the notifications.

“You can’t debate me about my lived experience. I’ve been Black all my life. I have had experiences that you have not had,” he said. “I think that it is important to understand and to recognize that people who look like me, whose skin has been kissed by the sun, who have endured the stigma of systemic and institutional injustice … have a different viewpoint than you would have.”