By ELLEN ZOPPO-SASSU
It often takes a pivotal moment to be the catalyst for social change such as assassinations, invasions, elections or tragedies.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 laid the foundation for the laws that keep workers safe and healthy today. The garment workers had been trying to unionize for better wages and working conditions. Management responded by locking the workers into the building. Fabric scraps, oil and hot machines crammed into rooms on the upper floors of the 10-story building ignited and with the exits blocked, girls attempted to use the rusted fire escape or jump from windows into the fire department’s dry-rotted nets, only to fall to the pavement as bystanders watched. The deaths unified female labor reformers who championed change in working conditions as well as the women’s right to vote in 1919.
In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt appointed social worker Harry Hopkins to lead an unemployment assistance program. He dragged a desk into the hall of the building where he was located and immediately began sending out money. Some critics disapproved of his haste and wanted a more long-term plan. Hopkins responded “People don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day.” In two hours he spent $5 million dollars, the equivalent of about $70 million today. Emergency relief was the most popular of the New Deal programs and has been called a major step in saving the American economy as well as providing a safety net for millions.
In 1951 Barbara Johns led a walkout of 400 Black students to protest inadequate facilities at her segregated high school in Virginia. Vowing to boycott classes until the local all-white school board addressed their complaints, Johns and another student wrote to the NAACP and a lawsuit seeking desegregation instead of just improved facilities was filed. This suit was consolidated with other cases including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, leading to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing public school segregation.
In 1965, John Lewis was beaten and nearly killed while leading a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Americans watched the violence in horror and later that year, the Voting Rights Act was passed ensuring Black people had the right to vote. Fast forward 55 years later and Americans again watched in horror as George Floyd gasped for breath and called out to his mother before dying under police restraint. Last Friday, as John Lewis lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, Gov. Ned Lamont’s signature on the police accountability bill represented a major policy shift in law enforcement and social justice issues.
We are fortunate that situations like what occurred in Minneapolis and the tragic death of George Floyd have not occurred in Bristol, although it has reverberated across the globe, sparking many passionate speeches about many aspects of social justice, race relations, community policing and the role of police.
In light of this, city officials have conferred with our insurance consultants and participated in a variety of calls with our government association to discuss local impact.
It was clear from all of these interactions the 45 sections of the new law will be open to interpretation by courts, future case law and potential constitutional questions. It is going to be weeks, if not months, until the real impact of this bill as law is known. Meanwhile, the city continues to maintain its law enforcement liability insurance policy and an excess liability policy.
Many people were also disappointed by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy’s recent statement about removing school resource officers from the schools in order to tackle racial inequalities and a disproportionate amount of arrests among minority students. I spoke with Senator Murphy who assured me that the proposed “Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act” would only prohibit federal dollars from funding police positions in the schools, not prohibit them entirely. I shared with him the success of the Bristol partnership between the Board of Education and police and the many benefits we see.
It is also time to get serious about tort reform. A lot of what motivates people are the dollar figures in litigation. For example, if a police officer is sued in Massachusetts, there is a cap of $500,000. In Connecticut, there is an unlimited tort cap which results in large settlements in the millions of dollars. Changing this and eliminating trial attorneys’ ability to sue for these ridiculous amounts would be a great cause for various organizations - CCM, police organizations, the NAACP and others - to achieve together.
The City Council is committed to continuing the discussion about equity, inclusion and diversity via the Diversity Council while also supporting the police department. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. We will be working hard to ensure that this does not become a divisive “either/or” issue in our community and encourage those who are interested in this topic to contact their council members or the mayor’s office.
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is the mayor of Bristol