HARTFORD – The first step toward reviving a legislative proposal to form a dedicated hate crimes unit within the State Police got off to a contentious start Thursday when some Republicans on the Public Safety and Security Committee objected to the bill’s intent and cast doubt on whether the understaffed force has the resources to do so.
State Sen. Dan Champagne, a retired Vernon police officer and ranking Republican on the committee, said he was still troubled that the title of the bill first proposed last year referred to the unit being formed to investigate hate crimes and criminal acts committed by “right-wing” extremist groups.
That language was quickly dropped and the bill died when the House of Representatives failed to bring it to a vote in the final hours of last year’s legislative session.
“I’m still going to have a problem with this because when this bill was originally put together it was aimed directly at right-wing extremists,” Champagne said Thursday at the committee’s first meeting of the current legislative session that started a day earlier. “Because of its origins and the way it was started I will never support it.”
Champagne, who also is Vernon’s mayor, said his remarks should not be construed as tolerance for right-wing extremist organizations.
“It was targeted at one group and I still have a problem that it’s still going to go after that one group,” he said. “Not that I support them, but when you create a law that law should be unbiased.”
Committee co-chair State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who is a retired corrections officer, said the words “right-wing” were inserted into the title of the bill last year by the Legislative Commissioners’ Office, which assists in drafting bills, and was immediately removed.
“This bill does not do that,” Osten told Champagne in reference to his assertion that it would target those groups. “I understand that you are talking historically, but this does not do that.”
Later, Osten told CT Examiner that she understands why the original title created controversy, but said that clearly was not the committee’s intent last year nor will it be this session.
“It addresses all hate crimes broadly for all groups, no matter what their political affiliation is,” she said of the proposal.
Hate crimes against minorities have spiked across the country to their highest levels in over a decade, according to FBI statistics.
In Connecticut, the FBI said there were 101 reported hate crime incidents in 2020, the latest data available, up from 76 in 2019.
About 60 percent of those reported crimes were based on race or ethnicity, with crimes against Black people — which totaled 41 — the most common.
Religion-based crimes were second-most common at 17 cases, mostly against those of Jewish faith, followed by sexual-orientation at 15 cases, four against people with disabilities and four that exhibited “multiple bias.”
There were 98 reported incidents in 2018 and 110 in 2017.
Thursday’s discussion came during a routine meeting to approve legislative ideas that the committee intends to pursue this session.
Seven of nine Republicans on the committee voted to not put the hate crimes investigation unit proposal on the list, while all 15 Democrats at the meeting voted in favor of it with little discussion.
The committee’s other ranking Republican, State Sen. Greg Howard, who works as a police detective in Stonington, said he may support the bill but voted against putting it on the committee’s session agenda on Thursday, “so we can flag it and keep an eye on it and make sure we have the correct language going forward.”
Howard said he is more concerned that state police, who are struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels, do not have the manpower to form a new unit, especially in light of a sharp drop in traffic enforcement during the pandemic that police say is starting to ramp up.
“One of their fundamental responsibilities is traffic safety and traffic stops are falling,” Howard said, adding that he is eager to get state police Commissioner James Rovella’s take on the issue.
“Obviously, hate crimes are despicable,” he said. “Hate crimes are perpetrated on people simply because of who they are and we do need to do something about that. But I’m interested to hear, to be honest, from the Commissioner as to their ability to form a new unit when they’re having such staffing issues.”
Last summer, Gov. Ned Lamont formed the Connecticut Hate Crimes Advisory Council, which is empowered to make recommendations on legislation affecting the reporting, investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The council’s next meeting is Feb. 22, and more information is available on its website.