The state Legislature made clear from the beginning of its planning for this summer’s special session that it was acting in response to protests that developed across the state and around the nation following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Legislators said the time is now to act on a series of meaningful changes to state law that would allow a new measure of justice to take hold. They can’t falter now just as they near the point of action.
Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders made clear that the parameters of the special session were to be limited to keep the Assembly from being distracted and that only the most pressing issues would take focus. One of these was ensuring the use of absentee ballots for the November election as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite some protests from Republicans, that measure appears to be on track, as it must be.
Also on the limited agenda was police accountability, a direct result of the wave of peaceful protests. Legislators were adamant that now is the time for action, including a section on qualified immunity, under which officers would lose protections from lawsuits over misconduct. Law enforcement advocates have predictably resisted, but now they have been joined by some legislative Democrats. Lamont has also wavered.
The issue remains fluid, but the worst result would be for legislators to allow police reform to die over any one part of the agenda, no matter how important. This bill, which also includes a ban on choke holds, mandatory body and dashboard cameras, an inspector general to oversee investigations into police misconduct and other measures, is a core reason why the Legislature is meeting at all. Lawmakers cannot let the issue die without action.
Equally of note is what is not on the agenda for the special session. Senate Democrats, in previewing the special session this summer, said they wanted a wide range of antidiscrimination measures brought up, including on housing and health care. Connecticut is by many measures a highly segregated state, and introducing ways to increase affordable housing is one of the best methods to counteract that.
Just as with police accountability, there is wide and growing support for integrative housing measures that the Legislature could easily take up. Zoning is primarily handled by local jurisdictions, but there is nothing stopping the state from taking on a greater role. A movement to allow a greater variety of housing diversity in exclusive suburban communities would have positive effects, and it’s something the state could do at no cost to anyone.
Here, too, the momentum for change won’t last forever. The Legislature must ensure that affordable housing and integration is a priority for its next session, in September or whenever it happens. As with police accountability, it’s an issue that can’t be allowed to fall to the wayside.
The drive to make real change in a state like Connecticut that’s averse to major shifts in public policy doesn’t happen often. This is one of those times. Police accountability must move forward, and then the priority needs to move to housing. Now is the time.