HARTFORD – Hate crimes are on the rise in Connecticut, but the state’s haphazard system of identifying, reporting and prosecuting them is a source of confusion and mistrust that results in underreporting of the incidents.
That was the message delivered to lawmakers Thursday at a State Capitol public hearing called to get input on a legislative proposal that would create a dedicated hate-crimes unit within the State Police – a move that many said would streamline the system while making it more effective.
State Police Commissioner James Rovella – the first to speak at the video hearing before the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee – said that while his agency formed such a unit last fall, the bill would expand its role to be a repository of cases from around the state reported by local departments.
The bill also would establish a statewide reporting system for victims, a statewide investigation policy for police, and mandate that local departments report hate crimes to the state police unit within 14 days of their occurrence.
That would provide all departments real-time data that would guide an appropriate response and any needed enforcement changes.
Individual investigations would still be handled by local departments.
“It would be more of a control tower, seeing what’s going on around the state,” Rovella said of the proposed enhanced unit. “This one’s important to us because we’re seeing the trends not only around the country but in the state,” of a rise in such offenses. “I suspect there could be reporting issues so we need some standardization on that and opening some doors.”
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 crimes were based on race or ethnicity, and crimes against Black people were most prevalent at 41 cases.
Religion-based crimes were second 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.”
Amy Lin Meyerson, co-chair of the state Hate Crimes Advisory Council formed last year by Gov. Ned Lamont, said she believes the number of actual crimes is far higher, and the reasons for victims’ reluctance to report incidents to police are complex.
“Whether people are uncomfortable, fear retaliation or are uncertain that justice will be served, underreporting of hate crimes is prevalent,” said Meyerson, an attorney and past president of both the Connecticut Bar Association and the national Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
She said the proposed unit and updated reporting and investigation process would “greatly assist the state and the council to prevent and combat hate crime.”
Republican State Rep. and Stonington police officer Greg Howard said while he finds such offenses “abhorrent,” he is cautious about increasing the state police’s workload in the face of understaffing and a wave of impending retirements in the agency.
“What I don’t want to do is pass a bill that would require you to put additional resources into a specialized unit and take away from fundamental responsibilities like patrolling the highways,” he told Rovella.
Rovella said that the unit is now composed of two detectives and two troopers, and that “We probably wouldn’t do much more with manpower other than (add) a supervisor.”
Rep. Michael DiGiovancarlo, D-Waterbury, who is also a veteran Waterbury police officer, said he worries that the proposal might place more burdens on officers already fearful of the potential ramifications of recent police-accountability laws that many view as overly restrictive.
“In a world where we don’t want police involved in anything, we seem to be getting dragged into more and more conflicts and more things to do,” DiGiovancarlo said while participating in the remote hearing in uniform from his police cruiser. “The officer has to feel protected. Because to me this opens the door to a complete civil rights investigation if someone thinks I violated their civil rights and I didn’t defend them properly or I didn’t make the proper charge or the proper arrest.”
Meyerson said the state police unit would be available at all times to address any such concerns, to which DiGiovancarlo replied: “In the heat of the moment at 8 o’clock at night, I’m not sure I’m going to get in touch with one of you guys when I’m in the middle of a conflict.”
Ivelisse Correa, who identified herself as a member of a state Black Lives Matter group, told the committee that she and her children had been the target of hate speech because of their race, and that the offender’s punishment was a breach of peace violation that could be resolved like a traffic ticket.
“That let me know not to bother reporting and instead to film these incidents for social media which will have greater repercussions than our current laws,” she said. “People of color in Connecticut generally do not bother to report. I am one of those people.”
Also testifying were several UConn students pursuing their master’s degree in social work, including Tae Ward, who said, “As a member of the LGBTQ community…I believe this bill is a step in the right direction for the protection of LGBTQ individuals, especially our transgender community.”
Carley Taft, another UConn grad student, said Connecticut is one of 16 states now considering enhanced hate-crimes legislation.
“The intent of the perpetrator in these hate crimes is to send a message to the victims that they’re not safe,” she said, adding that if the proposal is passed, “We’ll be solidifying our stance that hate is not welcome here in the state of Connecticut.”