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Alvin Penn’s Legacy, ‘The Penn Act’ Against Police Profiling

January 26th, 2012 · 14 Comments · Analysis and Comment, City Politics

Alvin Penn

Alvin Penn in 1999

Not later than January 1, 2000, each municipal police department and the Department of Public Safety shall adopt a written policy that prohibits the stopping, detention or search of any person when such action is solely motivated by considerations of race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation, and the action would constitute a violation of the civil rights of the person.

It was the spring of 1996 and Alvin Penn, an African American state senator from Bridgeport, was stopped by a white police officer in neighboring Trumbull that had an all-white police department. The cop interrogated Penn about his location.

“I asked why I was being stopped and why I needed to be aware of which town I was in. I wanted to know what difference that made,” Penn had said in describing the situation. “He told me he didn’t have to give a reason for stopping me and said if I made an issue of it he would give me a ticket for speeding.”

Alvin Penn was one of those guys who had the ability to make friends fast. Gregarious, quick-witted, an unforgettable cackling laugh. He also was not bashful about voicing an opinion. The police stoppage that day led to the passage in 1999 of an act carrying his name, one that has bombarded the airwaves in light of four East Haven police officers charged by federal authorities with violating the civil rights of Latinos, followed by the bizarre response of the city’s taco-talking mayor.

Penn was not groomed by the city’s African American political establishment. When Penn entered the scene 30 years ago Charlie Tisdale was both the organizational and public leader. In 1983 Tisdale became the first African American to win the nomination for mayor of a major party in the city. Tisdale was a commanding presence, smart, opinionated, the best singular political organizer in the city. He had directed (and still does) the city’s anti-poverty agency Action for Bridgeport Community Development, worked for Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration and then began building an organization to become mayor. He came close in 1983, the year he won a multi-candidate Democratic primary loaded with a bunch of white guys who split the vote when white voters still dominated registration and turnout. Tisdale lost the general election in a close contest to Republican incumbent Mayor Lenny Paoletta.

With Tisdale in the race, African American campaign workers were hard to come by in that 1983 primary. Tom Bucci, who would become mayor in 1985, reminisced about that 1983 primary and his meager African American support. “I had Alvin.”

Penn was not a major political player in 1983. He had landed work with the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce where he built relationships with the city’s business community. He also aspired to political office. Alvin ran for several local offices unsuccessfully. In 1991, he lost a City Council seat in a primary by the thinnest of margins. What now?

While Tisdale had been the highest profile African American figure in the city, it was Margaret Morton who changed city politics forever when she knocked off State Senator Sal DePiano in a Democratic primary in 1980. That nice, but mentally strong, funeral home director had buried the city’s political establishment from ever again dictating its candidate for State Senate. The game changed. When Margaret decided to retire in 1992 it was Alvin who replaced her. It was almost as though Alvin losing that council seat so narrowly made him the sympathetic choice. But, as well, Alvin had invested time in city politics.

Alvin received the oath of office for State Senate in January of 1993. As a state senator he fought passionately for casino gaming for the city when the casino bill was voted down in 1995, lobbied his peers for more state dough for the city and moolah for the ballpark and arena at Harbor Yard. Alvin could be stubborn too. He just about single-handedly denied a tardy lottery winner millions after legislators wanted to award the man the money even though he was just three days late from the deadline to claim the dough. How could Alvin be so cold-hearted, so stubborn? If I support this they’ll say I did it because the guy was black, Alvin defended.

The Alvin Penn Act, however, is Penn’s legacy. The debate has started: the act must be enforced, the act needs to be tougher. If Penn were still among us, he passed away in February of 2003, he’d be leading the charge.

More on the Alvin Penn Act here.

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14 Comments so far ↓

  • carolanne curry

    The fact of the matter is Alvin Penn’s legacy is not grounded in Bridgeport’s Government system either. Although the racism may not be as overt as it is in East Haven, it is nonetheless just as insidious. Perhaps the worst offender being CEO Nunn who doesn’t hesitate to use “boy” when addressing persons of color although he’ll say he is using humor.
    And the Finch/Wood administration certainly chooses a most public and humiliating process when separating persons of color from city employment.

  • Joel Gonzalez

    “… He just about single-handedly denied a tardy lottery winner millions after legislators wanted to award the man the money even though he was just three days late from the deadline to claim the dough. How could Alvin be so cold-hearted, so stubborn? If I support this they’ll say I did it because the guy was black, Alvin defended …”

    What? He really did and say that? He looked at the color of the skin of a man and made a decision based on color. Isn’t that profiling? I wonder what was his motive, reason or justification for making sure the Connecticut Capitol Police did not return my finger-chopping video cassette back in 1994. He suggested I should be institutionalized–calling me crazy. Never dared to debate the subject of gun violence in broad terms with “a crazy guy.” A man full of ego and self pride. His biggest moment as Chairman of the Public Safety Committee was chopped on March 8, 1994. He was the man of the hour that day. Huge media coverage of the Connecticut Gun ban hearing, Penn in center stage. Suddenly, the media left the room and it became obvious the end of Penn day had arrived. A crazy guy took it all away with just one finger. I wonder what he would have said about the Brook Street Cannibal.

  • Joel Gonzalez

    Paging Local Eyes:
    I’d like to talk with you about some business. You have qualities I like. I’m a man with vision just like you. My eyes are brown, but not from being full of shit like yahooy believes. Call me at 203-345-9597. Looking forward to talking with you.

  • donj

    Reporter, what are you doing to help the Latino community? East Haven mayor says I’m going to eat some tacos. WTF!!! YIKES. Racial profiling happens a lot and it is sad. To judge a person based on their race is crazy.

  • Bob

    Lennie, the traffic stop, as I recollect, was in the Trumbull Theater complex that you enter via Bridgeport. Aside from the fact the cop was a jerk and probably a racist, what was Penn doing in the far side of that complex away from the theaters? There probably were words exchanged that were inappropriate from both sides.

    • bpt guy

      Bob, at the time Alvin was by himself and said he was looking for a shortcut and went down Quarry Road that ended in cul-de-sac which he wasn’t aware of so he was in essence lost. Trumbull police are known for stopping people of color to this day. See a car heading into or out of Trumbull into Bpt on bordering roads and you can bet the house there’s a black man driving that car to this day.

  • Mojo

    *** There are always two sides to a story and somewhere in the middle you may find the truth. However, being on that side of the complex is not against the law and Alvin did get a big apology from the Trumbull PD after all was said, filed and done! Thanks to Alvin a much-needed state act is now law. It should not be against the law to ask questions! ***

  • barney

    Sorry OIB readers! Something a little off-topic.

    You can’t make this stuff up. Even the best novelist couldn’t write such entertaining fiction. Unfortunately, it isn’t fiction.

    As many of you know Andy Fardy and I (Ann Barney) have been members of the DTC representing the 138th. Andy resigned from the committee in September after serving over 10 years. I have been on the DTC for a little more than 4 years. Over the course of time Andy and I did not always vote the way the committee voted. We always voted for what we felt was the best interest of the 138th and the city at large. We were sometimes labeled as anti-establishment. Well I guess that pissed enough people off.

    It turns out the great leader of the 138th district; Martha Santiago took it upon herself to ASSUME that because Andy resigned, I would naturally resign too. I never indicated to anyone I had any intention of resigning, nor did I ever tender my resignation. I was elected to the DTC for a two-year term that expires in March 2012. However, Martha took it upon herself to just replace me. No meeting, no phone call, no conversation. I guess she figured she got rid of Andy, she could get rid of me too. She is now circulating petitions for the 138th Town Committee with two new people to replace Andy and I. No other committee member had a say. Just Martha making unilateral decisions to make sure her committee is made up of city employees who are too scared not to go along with the way she wants them to vote.

  • Up On Bridgeport

    OIB! Where we reward mediocrity and punish excellence!!!

  • bpt guy

    Barney, was I right Martha “I control my people that’s why I get what I want from THE MASSA and Mario because I control my people. A promotion a pay raise her bldg which she shares with Lydia during AB season and all elections that require fixin’, even if they ain’t broke.

    • barney

      bpt guy,
      I believe your comments are quite accurate. Martha is only looking to keep a job she is not qualified to do. Looking to keep a salary that is too much for what she does. She keeps these things by promising the powers that be she will deliver her town committee. She has always prided herself on being able to control her people. Well she couldn’t control me!

      The bylaws for the town committee state: Section 3: Vacancy

      Any vacancy on the Town Committee, arising from any cause including failure to elect, may be filled by the Town Committee by a majority vote of those present and voting at a meeting called for that purpose.

      Martha Santiago did not do that for the vacancy created by Andy Fardy. She has a history of appointing people to her town committee with no regard to the governing bylaws.
      I have sent and will be sending notification of Martha Santiago’s illegal practice to Nancy DiNardo, Mario Testo, Bill Finch and the state. Additionally, I am taking legal action against Martha.

  • Mojo

    *** It’s nothing new, but it’s sad if this type of political bullying is happening on your local town committee and the members are going along with it. Major changes concerning local town committee rules and regulations are needed to control this type of behind closed doors dictatorship policies. This is prevalent in the 131st district where district voters don’t seem to have a clue or say on what decisions are being made concerning their neighborhoods! Major steps to educate voters concerning the local political process in their districts and city are needed for any real change towards better political representation. *** Good Luck! ***

  • barney

    Mojo,
    You are so right when you say “It’s nothing new, but it’s sad if this type of political bullying is happening on your local town committee and the members are going along with it.”
    Martha Santiago may have illegally replaced Andy and me. However, the minute Martha handed out the petitions to the rest of the committee and saw at least two new names, those committee members knew what she did was wrong and then willingly went along with her bullying. Oh but wait, let’s take a look at some of the other remaining committee members.
    Robert Curwen–Councilperson’s wife has a city job. And he has been trying for a city job for years.
    Richard M. Paoletto, Jr–councilperson city employee. Another one in a job who doesn’t deserve it.
    Kevin Monks–city employee perhaps looking to retire on a workmans comp/disability claim.
    Chris Anastasi–city employee, son of city attorney.
    So at least five (including Martha) out of the 9 are city employees who might possibly fear ramifications if they don’t vote with Martha.
    Bridgeport bullying at its best. But it still does not excuse the members of the 138th town committee from looking the other way when blatant, willful wrongdoing is going on.
    To my fellow town committee members I say “Shame on you. And grow a pair of balls.”

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