By Jesse Duthrie
Senator Alvin Penn spent his last days in a hospital bed at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. It’s unclear whether Penn was aware his days were numbered and the pancreatic cancer with which he’d been diagnosed would soon end his life. In that hospital bed, as the days dwindled down to his last, he took reports from his fellow State Senator Ernie Newton on the proceedings in Hartford, kept up with budgetary problems in his district via conference calls, and sought to fight not only for his life, but for the lives of his constituents.
This is the American patriotic paradigm, the quixotic politician that men and women campaign to be yet seemingly never become; promises of unwavering devotion in the face of battle. Alvin Penn, an African American State Senator from Bridgeport, had a strong reputation at the Capitol which had been built not from family name or financial background but from the ground up—with moral guidelines and strong will and character. Alert of his impending death or not, Penn was a fighter.
Yet his political strengths don’t reside solely on this example; it’s merely an examination of character in trying times.
By the time Alvin Penn was in his thirties, he had worked his way into the business community of Bridgeport, developing strong connections with the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce, but remained off the map of politics. Penn worked vigorously to become more involved in the community: he joined the Urban League (and later sat on the Board of Directors), took part in the Commission of Human Rights and Equal Opportunity, and joined the Easter Seals. As his resume grew, so did his reputation. In the 1985 mayoral race, winner Tony Bucci credited Penn with helping him sure up the black vote—a major grab in a racially diverse city like Bridgeport.
As the eighties rolled on, Penn attempted to make the push for higher office. Though he won a seat on the City Council, he ran for a number of other offices unsuccessfully. In 1991, he lost his seat on the City Council and, for a moment, his grip on politics. That is, until, State Senator Margaret Morton retired in 1992, leaving a vacant spot. Penn had the pedigree, the support. Even more, he was an African American in a city where the identity of politics seemed to be changing. No longer a white man’s club, diversity was not only accepted but also supported. In 1993, Penn, the ideal candidate, was sworn in.
Penn’s prosperity in the state’s political arena built itself on more than his character or his willingness to persevere. Out of a single personal incident on Mother’s Day, 1996—a traffic stop that Penn declared as racial profiling—Penn would draw national attention to a dark side of policing that culminated in the first Connecticut law prohibiting racial profiling.
The details of the traffic stop, retold by Penn for a 1998 New York Times article, go like this: Penn was looking for a route to the Trumbull Shopping Park and got lost. As he made a U-turn, a police officer cut off Penn’s minivan, got out, and asked for his information. When Penn asked why he was being pulled over, the police officer allegedly said that it wasn’t important why he was being pulled over, and if Penn continued to make an issue of it he’d say that Penn was speeding. Furthermore, the police officer asked Penn whether or not he was aware of what town he was in.
To Penn, this seemed a clear instance of racial profiling—he, a black male driving in a predominately white town, pulled over for no other reason than the color of his skin. Trumbull’s Chief of Police Theodore J. Ambrosini backed his officer, calling the traffic stop routine. It became a battle of Penn’s word against theirs. Then hard-to-ignore details began to surface. After a string of armed robberies a few years before Penn’s incident, a leaked memorandum written by Ambrosini showed subtle acceptance of racial profiling. One part of the memo read: “One form of deterrence might be to develop a sense of proclivity towards the type of persons and vehicles which are usually involved with these types of crimes.”
The 1993 memo helped strengthen Penn’s argument. As he spoke further on the topic of racial profiling, he found allies in the Connecticut chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. One project the N.A.A.C.P. had been working on throughout the 1990’s was “Operation Blind Justice” —an effort to collect accounts of instances of racial profiling by police officers throughout Connecticut. By 1998 they had over 300 tips.
The New York Times coverage of Alvin Penn’s case gave Penn the support he needed to launch an attack on the Trumbull police. In the article, titled “Policing the Police: On Racial Profiling,” Richard Weizel uses Penn as an example and asks the larger questions: Who’s policing the police? Who is preventing the police from racially profiling town citizens? The answer turns out to be nobody. Only when a high profile African American citizen was profiled and made a stand were the police finally called out.
Alvin Penn had momentum. And the police officer who pulled him over that night, whether making a routine stop or actually profiling Penn, had tipped the first domino in a series of events that would culminate in the first legislation in the state against racial profiling: the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act. Enacted in 1999, just a little over three years after the Mother’s Day stop in Trumbull, the Alvin W. Penn Act prohibited any law enforcement agency from stopping, detaining, or searching a motorist when the stop is motivated solely by considerations of race, color, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
The Alvin W. Penn Act was a victory for all those who’d felt the wrongdoings of the police—the establishment meant to uphold the law, not pervert it. Furthermore, it was a major victory for Penn. The Alvin W. Penn Act was the first law passed in the state of Connecticut to be named after any person—politician or not—and solidified the once fledgling man’s journey from a Bridgeport community activist to an effective and serious State Senator.
By the time this article is released, the Alvin W. Penn Act will be gaining serious momentum in the state for its second time. The Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP), working in conjunction with the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, are producing television promotions to drum up public awareness of the law. A website titled “Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project” (http://www.ctrp3.org) explains the Act and Penn’s 1996 run in with the police. Law enforcement officers will be undergoing training on how to recognize their own unconscious biases and how to prevent them from interfering with their duty. Make no doubt about it: if you didn’t hear of Alvin Penn back in the late nineties, you will hear about him this year.
Thanks to Alvin Penn, the answer to Weizel’s question of “Who’s going to police the police?” is now going to be the police themselves. At every traffic stop, officers will be responsible for handing out information to motorists outlining how to report an incident of racial profiling, should he or she feel the victim of such. Not only will the motorist get a card with instructions on how to report instances of racial profiling, the police officer is going to have to instruct that driver on how to file the complaint. If this doesn’t rouse self-consciousness in police regarding their own biased behavior, what will? Furthermore, this time around the Office of Policy Management will have the funding to go through the reports and track each town’s police departments and, more specifically, follow-up on the extreme cases of profiling that warrant serious investigation.
Though well intentioned, the original Alvin W. Penn Act was initially a slow and ineffective law. It is now gaining strength in its renewal. Most people will remember Alvin Penn for his unwavering stance to make this one traffic stop- an incident that he could have let pass- into a focal point that addressed racial profiling. Like his last days in Sloan Kettering, Penn’s traffic stop is another glimpse of character: of a man who would not back down against a fight. The fight to end racial profiling is long, but these are the steps required towards improving the system for those who’ve felt its presence. As the years since Penn’s death pass, the effects of his work are still growing, still branching their way across our legislation.