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Opposite police votes don't divide Democrats representing New London

State Reps. Joseph de la Cruz and Anthony Nolan, Democrats whose districts intersect in New London, voted opposite one another on the police accountability bill that was signed into law Friday by Gov. Ned Lamont.

They took a lot of heat as a result of their votes, but not from one another.

Nolan called de la Cruz a few days after the July 24 vote to see if he was OK. Both men professed continuing respect for each other during phone interviews, and said they're still a team.

"Joe told me, 'I'm not voting for it,'" Nolan said by phone Friday as he was driving to Hartford for the signing ceremony for House Bill 6004. "I told him I was for it. He told me he wasn't for it. I told him why I was supporting it, and he told me why he wasn't. We agreed to disagree. I wish more people could do that."

The sweeping bill mandated the state to appoint an independent inspector general to investigate when police use deadly force, authorized community civilian review boards, set new standards for the use of force and limited the ability of police to search vehicles. It authorized the Police Officer Standards and Training Council to decertify a police officer so that they could no longer work in the profession. Many of the provisions were sticking points, but none as much as the provision limiting qualified immunity and enabling more police to be sued civilly in state court.

Both men had complicated reasons for voting the way they did.

Nolan, 52, an African American police officer from New London, is serving his first term as state representative for the 39th District.

Nolan said that before he was a police officer, he was Black, and when he goes home at night and takes off his uniform, he's still Black. He's heard the racial slurs, and he's been pulled over by police.

"I get stopped also by officers, and sometimes I tend not to display my badge and say I'm a police officer," he said. "Sometimes I want to know how I'm going to be treated if they don't know I'm a police officer. Sometimes I end up having to correct things."

The community had demanded change following the death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis police, and Nolan said that after hearing from large numbers of people who wanted him to vote in favor of the bill, and after a "roller coaster" night of debate, during which he cried and prayed with fellow members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, he voted in the affirmative.

The people had an uprising, and this is where things ended up, Nolan said.

"I just believe it was something that was right and was needed to be done to help correct the wrongs in our community," he said. "It's  something that has been going on for decades where people continue to have incidents with police in regards to responsibility and accountability."

Nolan describes himself as a peace officer, and is better known as an advocate for young people than for making arrests. He says he doesn't associate much with many of his fellow police officers. Even one of most assertive officers on the force, union President Todd Lynch, said that while Nolan isn't the most proactive police officer, officers could count on Nolan if they needed him.

Nolan said he didn't hear much, directly, from fellow officers. But he said people visited him at his house and stopped him in the street to talk about the vote. He hinted on a social media post that some were trying to bully him, though he didn't name names. 

"Your threats to vote me out of office is not a concern," Nolan wrote on his Facebook page on July 29. "Your inference to destroy me publicly is not a concern. Your fake calls, and people you send to intimidate just show me i need to do more. Telling me to watch out. Watching out has become my lifestyle."

Nolan said it's very difficult, currently, for victims of police to receive a settlement or judgment, and that the new law gives police departments and cities the responsiblity to hold police to a higher standard.

"I really have to say, we don't have all bad police in New London," Nolan said. "We have great police in New London and Connecticut, but I do feel we need to up our standard so we are treating people correctly."

Nolan said he is still willing to listen, and if he needs to go back to Hartford to make a change to the bill, he will. He also said he is working on a video to talk about the success of the bill, but at the same time send a reminder that "we as a community need to correct some of our behaviors."

"At this time, I feel it was extremely necessary to push through this bill to support the people who came out," he said.

De la Cruz, 49 of Groton, is in his second term in the state house. He said he had to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life when he cast his vote against the police accountability bill. 

One of only four Democrats to vote against the measure, in social media posts he was called out as a traitor who had sided against Black and brown people. 

The qualified immunity issue was a sticking point for de la Cruz, who also said he also didn't like that the vote was rushed through a special session without going through the usual process. He said he had done his homework and was disappointed that some of his fellow representatives had never even spoken to a police chief before casting their vote.

De la Cruz said he voted with his heart, which he had to do in order to sleep at night.

Half Filipino and half white, de la Cruz said he always considered himself white until he got his driver's license. He was pulled over the first week, and about 30 times more over the course of his life. He admitted that as a young man, he wasn't always doing the right thing.

"I was on the other side of police for a very long time," de la Cruz said.

But when he and his wife Tammy started Community Speaks Out, a non profit organization that helps people who are addicted to opioids, nobody was more helpful than police and firefighters, he said.

And when his son, Joey Gingerella, was fatally shot on Dec. 11, 2016, it was Groton Town Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. who crafted a statement for de la Cruz and stood with him at a press conference while de la Cruz read the heartbreaking appeal for help with finding the killer. 

"I guess I'll always be indebted for that," de la Cruz said. "I have a cousin who really questioned my vote. She said, 'Don't forget the bad experiences you had.' But I've been able to pull it all together into one big cake and form my own opinion."

De la Cruz said he had attended the protests in support of people of color and that he knew his vote would be hurtful to friends and to people he loves.

But even if it costs him his seat in Hartford, de la Cruz, who had also espoused tolls when many  opposed them fiercely, said he did the right thing.

"I get it," he said. "COVID happened. We had this emergency situation in our country where we were just done with bad police, but that doesn't give us a pass to put bad legislation through."

k.florin@theday.com

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