How the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus worked to preserve the police accountability bill
July 12, 2021
By Gabriel Pietrorazio
Spotty Zoom calls at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus (BPRC) kept convening online for months over countless connection-dropping Zoom calls, organizing for hours on end and simply waiting for an opportunity to strike.
And then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by the now-convicted Derek Chauvin while being held in police custody — and that changed everything.
No longer would the BPRC wait to allow buffering videos, state lawmakers or even a global pandemic stand in the way of guiding unprecedented concrete policing policy reform into law.
Formed in 1976, the caucus sought to promote and assist underrepresented communities in becoming more actively involved in the political process, but also acted as the guiding force in driving House Resolution 6004, better known as the police accountability bill, through the state Capitol’s House and Senate chambers in Hartford.
Last year in late-July, the BPRC heard the cries of constituents wanting police held accountable for the well-documented atrocities that have been harming and even killing Black citizens across the country, like what happened to Floyd, and they too, wanted to stop them from happening with such frequency moving forward.
Demonstrations sprung up all across Connecticut in the wake of George Floyd’s death — even bringing highway traffic to a grinding halt along I-84 in Waterbury. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio.
For years, communities of color across Connecticut have been calling for a change — to no answer from Hartford — until an almost eight-hour debate ensued in the wee hours of one evening that lingered through to Friday morning on July 24, 2020, as a part of special legislative session: one that presented an enormous opportunity for their caucus to seize.
Against all odds, it finally happened: ending a 86-58 vote final roll call in the House of Representatives. Qualified immunity had been revoked. Vehicular consent searches are now prohibited.
Even with the entire state shut down — the BPRC still kept in touch with constituents through Facebook Live, hosting a series of tele-town halls dedicated “to unpack the diverse needs of Connecticut’s communities of color in this moment.”
State Rep. Brandon McGee [D-5] of Hartford, the former BPRC caucus chair, thanked his colleagues for enduring through “two marathons of debate and tireless advocacy when it came to insulin, telehealth absentee voting and particularly the police accountability measure,” all of which passed in late-July.
“Your commitment to police accountability and transparency is greatly appreciated,” McGee told his caucus colleagues on Facebook Live.
It was more than just any political accolade or way to lay claim for the “Land of Steady Habits,” becoming the first in the nation to strip qualified immunity for police officers. In fact, it really was a risk — not only for them, but their constituents alikes — an important initiative caucus members were “willing to go down fighting,” McGee openly admitted.
Even though the multi-day special session isn’t something new for seasoned lawmakers in Hartford, they certainly looked different than usual.
Legislators were situated in their offices and had to walk to the Capitol’s chambers while wearing their masks just to offer official testimonies. But upon arriving at the debate floor, many of their members’ recounting stories were also deeply moving and personal.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. [D-75] of Waterbury, and former BPRC vice chair, comes from a family filled with law enforcement professionals. He’s proud of them and their commitment to service, but police officers should be judged on their worst actors — not just their exemplars.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter [D-1] of Hartford, speaks while Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. [D-75] sits behind his party’s leadership during the special legislative session on July 23, 2020. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio.
“When you are a good officer and stand by and do nothing and say nothing, you are complicit and just as equally guilty as that officer who is actually not doing what he has sworn to do,” Reyes testified during the special session. “To stand here and have folks tell us that we are anti-policing is an insult to all of our intelligence, and to us as people of color.”
This monumental legislative victory “all started right here” virtually on spotty-serviced Zoom calls alongside his fellow colleagues, according to Reyes.
“I believe that the unity that we saw on the special session night was a combination of those many months that we spent here,” Reyes said during the tele-town hall. “This venue that we were forced to learn and actually participate in has actually strengthened the BPRC.”
Despite some minor technical difficulties along the way, Reyes insists that “this caucus is far stronger, more united and actually more powerful than it's ever been before.”
And his colleagues overwhelmingly agreed with him.
State Senator Gary Winfield [D-10] of New Haven, who successfully led the contentious bill as the Senate’s chief deputy majority leader, suggested that the topic of police accountability can now serve as a building block for future social justice initiatives that’ll impact other underserved communities like Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury.
“Thank you to every single one of you, because you have given people who’ve been in the streets of Connecticut, in places where they don’t normally spend time, hope that they get heard in the halls of the Legislature,” Winfield said. “Connecticut has a robust landscape for reform, but there’s more to do. We have a task force, and we will have legislation continuing.”
Yet the July special session sowed “some divisions” among caucus members, causing McGee to pledge and “actively work to help mend and heal, but remain true to who we are.”
“We must remember that every member had their reasons for voting the way that they did,” McGee said. “We must respect one another's decisions, and move forward together to confront the many challenges before us.”
While a number of caucus members opposed the unprecedented police reform legislation, McGee stopped — pausing for a moment to acknowledge Jesse MacLachlan, a former Republican state representative who served the 35th District of Killington, Clinton and Westbrook.
He was the sole Republican to oppose the amendment after a nail-biting 72-72 roll call, which would've ruled-out the qualified immunity clause altogether — had that provision passed. It tied, however — meaning the measure failed from striking qualified immunity out of the bill’s final package.
What came across as a surprise to pundits, politicians and the press alike — sending seismic shockwaves throughout the entire state, it wasn’t all too surprising for McGee.
“Jesse came to our caucus in the days following George Floyd’s murder, and he listened, he apologized,” McGee revealed. “He had a long conversation with us…. We had some members of this caucus vote against the accountability bill, but Jesse, I want you to know that your support did not go unnoticed.”
In spite of suffering from continued criticisms stemming from his own Republican colleagues as the sole supporter of the amendment from across the aisle, McGee believed “he stood up for what was right” and extended his earnest gratitude to MacLachlan for “his courage and strength in the face of partisan pressure.”
Even now, MacLachlan supports his decision almost a year later to the same date.
“There were certainly plenty of folks that disagreed with me, as is often the case with any contentious issue, but ultimately the job of policymakers is to make decisions and solve problems, even when the answer isn't clear,” MacLachlan told The Under Courant. “It was a difficult vote, but I stand by it.”
Although the final bill was “certainly not perfect,” MacLachlan still believes it was “a product of significant compromise and needed to balance public safety with government accountability.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides [R-114] of Derby, opposed the police accountability bill, urging her Republican colleagues to vote against the measure alongside her party’s leadership. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio.
With courage comes sacrifice and the young Republican upstart certainly did — paying a price by supporting the police accountability bill’s amendment.
A few months later in early August, the three-term incumbent decided to no longer seek reelection based in part because of his vote after siding with a Democrat-majority followed a heated debate in Hartford.
But he doesn’t regret exiting from his public service career, and actually learned a lot from the caucus in the process — becoming more knowledgeable and even empathetic to the plight of non-white residents throughout the state.
“In previous bills addressing the issue of law enforcement, I felt like I hadn't done a good enough job learning both sides of the issue,” MacLachlan said. “Speaking with members of the BPRC helped me better understand the lived experience of folks who have a very different relationship with law enforcement than I do.”
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About Gabriel Pietrorazio
Gabriel Pietrorazio is an award-winning journalist, who kickstarted his career in journalism in his home state of Connecticut. His storytelling interests aim at illuminating readers about topics and issues including food, agriculture, health, politics, policy, crime and justice as well as Indigenous affairs.
Growing up in Watertown, Gabriel started reporting for his local newspapers, The Town Times and Voices, in the summer of 2018, while pursuing a B.A. in Media & Society and Political Science at Hobart College.
Since 2019, Gabriel has actively participated in the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists pro-chapter, where he was named a multi-time finalist and top-prize placer, and has earned numerous honorable mentions and awards at the annual Excellence in Journalism contest.
In addition to covering the Constitution State, Gabriel has told stories across New York State, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Investigative Reporters & Editors and Native American Journalists Association, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.
As an accomplished freelancer, his work has appeared in numerous regional and national outlets, including the Washington City Paper, Waterbury Observer, TASTE, Civil Eats, FingerLakes1.com, Finger Lakes Times and The News Station.