Hartford Common Council considers civil rights reforms

BORDC and 45 allied organizations call for more FBI oversight
July 28, 2010
A Climate of Acquiescence
August 24, 2010

On Monday, August 16, the Hartford Common Council held a public hearing on a groundbreaking proposed ordinance. The bill, introduced by Councilor Luis Cotto, would raise civil rights above the federal floor by limiting law enforcement powers and imposing transparency into potential racial and ethnic profiling.

Then, last night, the Council’s Quality of Life and Public Safety Committee held a meeting to discuss details of the ordinance, and ultimately decided to postpone its recommendation in order to invite further review. A diverse range of advocates encouraged the Council on Monday to adopt the ordinance.

For instance, community member Sarah Ferah suggested that “it seems absurd that I should be more scared of the police than the bad guys,” while Mongi Dhaouadi from the Council on American-Islamic Relations shared the story of a community member threatened with arrest simply for being named “Muhammad.”

A representative of the ACLU explained that while the state’s Penn Act already prohibits profiling, it has not been adequately enforced, and also noted that law enforcement officials around the country have spoken out against profiling and confirmed concerns that local immigration enforcement undermines public safety.

Even some opponents of the ordinance, such as a Mr. Clark who testified against it, conceded that “racial profiling is a problem.” Others, such as a former pastor, agreed with concerns about police accountability while suggesting that Cotto’s ordinance was an imperfect vehicle to address the issue. The various voices raising concerns reflected the diversity of groups impacted by profiling.

LaResse Harvey of A Better Way Foundation, for instance, explained that over 80 percent of Hartford’s population is non-white. She also shared written testimony from 17-year-old Simo Anderson, who noted that nearly 20 percent of the city’s population was born in a foreign country. Even members of the demographic majority have been impacted, as explained by a college student who introduced himself as “a strange victim of racial profiling,” on account of being “a white man with long hair and a funny beard” presumed by police to be selling drugs while working at a community center.

Tuesday’s meeting more heavily emphasized voices from the Hartford Police Department (HPD), whose chief, Daryl K. Roberts, reiterated concerns that the proposed ordinance would limit the department’s efforts to ensure public safety. Noting that the ordinance would restrict HPD’s participation in the Connecticut fusion center and the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, for example, he drew attention to federal grants that the city could lose by declining to participate. He also emphasized the legitimacy of intelligence collection, explaining how proposed limits would impede legitimate efforts to retain information, for instance, about the medical needs of people injured in accidents.

I spoke with Chief Roberts after Tuesday’s hearing, and was impressed by his willingness to thoughtfully address the community’s concerns. While insisting that HPD does not tolerate profiling when brought to its attention, the chief acknowledged that profiling may sometimes occur and invited further dialog. We at BORDC look forward to continuing to work with the Hartford Common Council as it explores opportunities to ensure police accountability and protect civil rights.