HARTFORD, Conn. — Senate Democrats want to create and fund a new state police department focused on combating hate crimes and violent right-wing extremism.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M Looney, D-New Haven, said his caucus has no intention of persecuting people for their political beliefs, but they are increasingly concerned about contemplated, hateful actions.
“Unfortunately, people who entertain hateful beliefs ... are protected as long as [those beliefs] don’t result in hate-crime actions. That’s what we’re talking about,” he said Wednesday at a news conference at the Legislative Office Building. "We want to be more aggressive in enforcing our laws and identifying likely sources of potential domestic terrorism acts against religious institutions and ethnic institutions.”
The proposal was included in Senate Democrats’ “A Just Connecticut” agenda. The new department would “specialize in investigating far right extremist groups and individuals,” according to a news release.
In 2017, state police reported 111 “bias crime” incidents across Connecticut, up slightly from 2016. About 60% of the crimes were motivated by bias against a particular race, ethnicity or ancestry, while about 20% were motivated by religious bias. The statistics matched national trends. Most of the racially biased crimes were anti-black, while most of the religiously bias crimes were anti-Jewish. Intimidation and vandalism were the most common forms of these crimes, officials said.
“Protecting the state from hate crimes is one of our greatest concerns," said Brian Foley, executive aide to the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. The department oversees the state police.
"We work closely with many groups, faith-based as well as community groups, to ensure their safety and keep an open line of communication,” Foley said. While state police "vigorously monitor, investigate and track” this issue, Foley added that police are always looking for ways to improve their service.
Legislation passed in 2017 made several changes to the state’s hate crime laws, “including modifying the elements of some of these crimes, broadening the protected classes, and enhancing certain penalties," according to a state police report.
Besides committing acts of violence, it is also a crime to deprive someone of any legally guaranteed right, intentionally desecrate religious property or use burning crosses or nooses to intimidate others.
Looney said he recently attended a conference with representatives of Connecticut’s Jewish federations in New Haven, where religious leaders shared “grave concerns” about the security of places of worship. As part of the effort to combat hate crimes, the legislation would also call for funding to enhance security features at religious facilities across the state.
Laura Zimmerman, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, described the meeting in New Haven as a show of bipartisan support against hate crimes.
“We’ve been talking about security for many years,” she said, emphasizing the importance of awareness, practical security measures and training. “It’s important that everyone works together to keep our communities safe.”
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Looney said the state made funds available to schools for the purpose of improving security lighting, doors, bulletproof windows, “and things of that nature.” Now, Democrats are looking to expand that funding to places of worship.
“This is an issue that is real, and it is recurring,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that in 2020, we still have to deal with it.”