The state Senate voted Thursday for two key law enforcement bills that would protect citizens’ rights to videotape police officers in their official duties and strengthen the state’s racial profiling law.
The videotaping bill was prompted by the arrest of a Roman Catholic priest in February 2009, which prompted a long-running criminal investigation by federal prosecutors and the FBI that led to the arrest of four East Haven police officers on charges of obstructing justice and excessive force against Latino residents.
“Sometimes we become aware of incidents where police officers have become overzealous or abusive,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, the co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee. ”We’ve seen over the years when that kind of behavior … has come to light” because of videotapes, photographs, and cell phone cameras.
The priest, Father James Manship of New Haven, attended a press conference at the state Capitol on Thursday in which Senate Democrats said that Manship’s actions in photographing an East Haven police officer would have been protected if the proposed law had been in effect.
After more than four hours of impassioned debate, the bill passed by 24 to 11 with a bipartisan coalition in favor.
The Senate also voted in favor of strengthening of the state’s racial profiling law as some senators say that the current law is not being followed by police. Only 27 of the 92 local police departments are in compliance with the law, according to Senate Democrats. The president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Douglas Fuchs of Redding, does not agree that few departments are in compliance, adding that racial profiling data does not “accurately portray how Connecticut law enforcement across the state conducts business.”
The chamber voted 31 to 3 in favor of the profiling bill with Democrats Andrew Maynard and Edith Prague absent. Three Republicans – Kevin Witkos of Canton, Joseph Markley of Southington, and Len Suzio of Meriden – voted against the bill shortly before the Senate adjourned at about 8 p.m. Thursday.
Regarding the videotaping bill, Coleman also cited the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 in an incident that was caught on videotape by a bystander and played on national television numerous times. The police, however, maintained that King had been highly disruptive and would not obey their commands as he was initially resisting arrest until he was knocked to the ground.
The bill would create a new cause of action by allowing a citizen to file a civil lawsuit against a police officer for interfering with the videotaping by the citizen.
The bill has multiple exceptions in which the police officer would not be liable for interfering with a citizen who was videotaping official actions. The exceptions include the officer’s explanation that he was protecting the public safety, safeguarding the privacy interest of any citizen, and preserving “the integrity of a crime scene or criminal investigation” in Connecticut.
“If the police officer reasonably believed by interfering that he was protecting a crime scene, he would not be liable,” Coleman told his colleagues on the Senate floor.
Sen. Edward Meyer, a Guilford Democrat and longtime attorney, said the bill could be a deterrent to police abuse. He questioned what would happen if an undercover police officer in a drug trafficking case was caught on videotape during a drug transaction as he was purchasing drugs from a criminal.
“In that scenario, a number of exceptions that are outlined in the bill would apply,” said Coleman, adding that the undercover officer’s identity and safety need to be protected. In addition, the crime scene would need to be preserved, he said.
The official analysis of the bill from the Office of Legislative Research states that the police officer ”cannot be found liable if they reasonably believed that the interference was necessary to (1) lawfully enforce a criminal law or municipal ordinance; (2) protect public safety; (3) preserve the integrity of a crime scene or criminal investigation; (4) safeguard the privacy of a crime victim or other person; or (5) enforce Judicial Branch rules and policies that limit taking photographs, videotaping, or otherwise recording images in branch facilities.”
Sen. Kevin Witkos, a longtime police officer in Canton with 28 years of experience in law enforcement, offered an amendment that an individual should not be ”allowed to cause inconvenience or alarm” to the officer in the performance of official duties. He said specifically that he would not want a bystander videotaping him as he was interviewing a person to determine the often-conflicting details in a sometimes-chaotic domestic violence dispute.
“New recruits are taught: act responsible because there are cameras on you” at virtually all times, said Witkos, the only senator who is currently a police officer.
But Coleman said the language by Witkos in the amendment was “overly broad” and granted too many exceptions for the police officers. The amendment was not needed because the exceptions were already outlined in the bill, Democrats said.
“To adopt this amendment would do nothing more than muddy the waters,” Coleman said on the Senate floor.
Senators noted that the state already has a criminal charge that is known as interfering with a police officer. The debate Thursday focused on civil litigation, not criminal, regarding an individual’s right to film police activity. Witkos said he specifically placed the word “inconvenience” in the amendment, rather than the word “interfering,” because of the existing law.
“It’s only right that we carve that out as a defense in civil litigation,” said Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield attorney. “If the purpose was to interfere with the proper duties of the police officer,” then that could be used as a defense in the civil case.
“We see people with their handheld devices, and people will assemble en masse” to block an officer from getting the job done, said Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican who supported the Witkos amendment.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who represents 15 towns in Litchfield County, said he was shocked to hear the various explanations during the debate on the Senate floor.
“I have been listening to this debate, and my jaw is getting lower and lower, the more I learn,” Roraback said. “It could put a citizen in position to profit financially in the course of a crime. … It would be a very sad day for our society if someone could benefit financially.”
Witkos said, “In any profession, there are some rotten apples out there.”
Witkos’s amendment failed 18 to 14 on a strict party line vote with four Democrats absent at about 2:50 p.m. Thursday.
McKinney offered another amendment that would exempt the state Capitol police from the law because the legislature has its owns rules within its chambers that prevent anyone from videotaping the proceedings without permission. The CT-N public affairs network has permission to broadcast the proceedings, which covers all debates in the legislature. McKinney offered a hypothetical in which a person was videotaping the Senate without permission, and the Capitol police tried to remove the person from the chamber. During that hypothetical instance, a scuffle breaks out, and a second person videotaped the first person being forcibly removed from the Senate gallery.
McKinney said the Capitol police did not receive the same leeway as was being granted in the bill for the judicial branch that would cover the courtroom marshals – meaning that the judicial and legislative branches were being treated differently.
“We’re asking [Capitol] police officers to think of all these ridiculous things when they’re just supposed to be doing their duty,” McKinney said.
“I think the hypothetical itself is misleading and flawed,” Coleman said, adding that McKinney’s amendment was unnecessary. McKinney’s amendment was defeated shortly after 4:30 p.m. on a party line vote by 20 to 14 with two Democrats – Andrew Maynard and Eileen Daily – absent.
The final vote on the videotaping bill was 24 to 11 at about 5:20 p.m. with Democratic Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury joining with Republicans against the bill.
In another development, senators pushed Thursday to strengthen the state’s racial profiling law after a recent report by The Hartford Courant said that minority drivers were more likely to receive tickets after being stopped on state roads than white drivers.
“I thought our state was ahead of the curve on this,” said Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican.
Kissel said that he was the subject of a profiling incident in his hometown of Windsor, where he was detained for one hour while he was in law school. Kissel said he had long hair and a moustache at the time, and his appearance fit the description of a man who was involved in assaults in another town. After an hour, Kissel said that the police released him.
The racial profiling law had been named after the late senator from Bridgeport, Alvin Penn, who died at the age of 54 in February 2003 from pancreatic cancer.
Penn spoke strongly about racial profiling before his death, but the chief state’s attorney, John M. Bailey, said in January 2001 that a study showed that there was no widespread racial profiling in Connecticut.
Starting on Jan. 1, 2000, all local police departments – under the law – became required to fill out a report every time that a police officer made a traffic stop. Those reports were required to be sent to the chief state’s attorney’s office. During the first six months of the new law, 315,000 reports were written that included the driver’s race and the reason for the stop.
“We did not find a pattern of racial profiling,” Bailey said at the time. “Minority drivers do not appear to be treated systematically any different than non-minority drivers.”
The report stated that 12 percent of motorists who were stopped were African American in a state where the 1990 Census data showed that 8 percent of the population was black.
Former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who now works for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office, said that racial profiling exists in Connecticut.
“Mr. Bailey, unfortunately, has passed on. He can’t speak for himself,” Lawlor said. “The fact of racial profiling is very real. Almost every African American has a story like that [of profiling], and very few white people do. It’s real.”
The study was completed by a professor from Central Connecticut State University, Stephen M. Cox. He told The Hartford Courant at the time that, even with information that was potentially inaccurate, that “there really is no difference on why people are stopped” in the state.
Penn strongly disagreed at the time with Cox.
“If you’re African American, you are three times more likely to get arrested, and I can’t see how that isn’t a problem,” Penn said at the time. “That’s not a marginal number to me.”
Connecticut became the first state in the nation to order an analysis of all motor vehicle stops in an attempt to determine whether minorities were stopped more often than caucasian drivers.
Penn said at the time that there should be more ways to file complaints about racial profiling, which required filling out a form at a local police department or on a web site.
“How many black people are going to go to the chief state’s attorney’s Web site or walk into the police station of the cop who just stopped them and file a complaint?” Penn asked at the time. ”I am going to suggest we leave complaint forms at the local NAACP offices and churches.”