It’s been almost two decades since Avon’s first black police officer, Alvin D. Schwapp, Jr. filed a 12-count racial discrimination lawsuit against the town.
Schwapp’s complaint, filed in 1993, claimed, among other things, that an Avon police sergeant ordered officers to pull over black and Hispanic people in the summer on the so-called "Barkhamsted Express," a section of Route 44 that runs through Avon between Hartford and the Barkhamsted Reservoir.
“It was a very hot issue,” former Avon Town Manager Philip K. Schenck said in a phone interview on Jan. 6, noting racial profiling was a national and statewide concern at the time. “I don’t think there was definitive evidence profiling was going on.”
Although the case was ultimately disposed of by 1998 when Avon prevailed, the allegations and separate state legislation passed in 1999 influenced measures the town and police department have since taken to prevent racial profiling.
“The times have changed,” said Avon Police Chief Mark Rinaldo, who was hired at the department in 1998 and rose to the rank of chief in 2006. “We know here that we don’t view people differently in terms of law enforcement. We just do the job we have to do.”
Alvin Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act
Legislators held a press conference on Jan. 4 calling for refinement to the Alvin Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act, known informally as the Penn Law, after a recent federal probe exposed incidents of racial profiling by East Haven police against Hispanics during motor vehicle stops, The CT Mirror reported that day.
The law was enacted in 1999 after former state Sen. Alvin Penn, D-Bridgeport, felt he was pulled over in Trumbull because he was black and pushed for legislation to ban racial profiling, according to the American Civil Liberties Union website.
“It was kind of controversial because when an officer pulls over a car, how do you determine what race they are?” Schenck said of the law, as officers then had to ask about a person’s ethnicity because it was not included on Connecticut driver’s licenses.
Avon complies with the law, which requires Connecticut police departments to annually file data on every motor vehicle stop with the African-American Affairs Commission. This includes information such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, reason for a stop and the reporting officer’s name.
Glenn A. Cassis, executive director of the African-American Affairs Commission, confirmed that, outside of a few months in 2010, since at least 2008.
“I’ve seen no evidence of bias-based motor vehicle stops,” Rinaldo said of his department. “We watch it as required by the law.”
Police departments are also required under the Penn Law to have a written policy banning “traffic stops, searches and detentions” based on a person’s “race, color, age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation,” according to the legislature’s website. Rinaldo said Avon officers sign confirmation that they’ve read Avon’s policy.
Raising Cultural Awareness and Preventing Racial Profiling
Since he has been chief, Rinaldo has additionally brought in speakers to talk about work environment issues, such as cultural sensitivity and interpersonal relations.
“We really are proactive in that area,” the chief said.
Cultural awareness training is also included in required annual Police Officer Standards and Training re-certification, which Avon officers complete at the West Hartford Police Department, Rinaldo said.
While there were one or two complaints of racial profiling during motor vehicle stops last year, an investigation showed the allegations were unfounded, he said.
“We monitor the officers’ activity,” Rinaldo said of all police in the department. “I’m convinced they’re complying with all aspects of the law and policies.”
Impact of Schwapp vs. Town of Avon Lawsuit
Amid fielding angry calls from residents when the case was made public in The Hartford Courant after Schwapp resigned from the department in 1994, Schenck and other town officials met with various cultural leaders at the Urban League of Greater Hartford to explain the situation and assure them they were investigating Schwapp’s complaints.
The town investigated the racial profiling complaint, which was difficult because race was not included on police reports then, Schenck said. That entailed cross-referencing names, license numbers and addresses of every person stopped between 1990 and 1993 with the officers that conducted the stops and their shift information, Schenck said. None of the people were interviewed, Schenck confirmed.
“There was no systemic program that showed the town of Avon was systematically stopping people of color,” Schenck said, though people from urban areas were pulled over.
Schenck said an internal investigation, outside of the racial discrimination lawsuit, revealed that Sgt. Thomas A. Transue and Sgt. Steven A. Howe, who are no longer with the department, had made discriminatory racial remarks.
“I don’t want to minimize that there were officers making derogatory comments,” he said. “It took us by surprise why this was going on."
James A. Martino, Jr., Avon police chief during the Schwapp case, suspended the men in September 1995 for two days without pay, according to letters he sent them on Sept. 7, 1995. Both were required to take an eight-hour course on cultural diversity awareness and eight hours more of town-sanctioned cultural sensitivity training, as Martino mandated in the letters.
“This department has not and will not tolerate or condone racially disparaging remarks or any manner of discrimination by any member of this department…” Martino wrote to Howe and Transue.
All town employees went through "cultural sensitivity" training as well, Schenck said.
“We felt it to be a good measure to do that,” Schenck said.
To this day, all town employees have to do annual cultural sensitivity training, he said.