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.