Editorial Roundup: New England

Portland Press Herald. August 6, 2021.

Editorial: Maine State Police justified in plan to use body cameras

The equipment is expensive, but it will boost accountability and public confidence in the agency’s work.

Vast stretches of the state of Maine are patrolled by state troopers, typically operating on their own without partners or direct supervision, responding to everything from fender-benders to homicides.

Typically, the only record of what they do comes from the officers’ reports and statements by the people they encounter. But that may soon change.

State Police Col. John P. Cote says that his agency is preparing to equip officers with body-worn cameras that would make a video record of what they do when they are out on the road.

This is good news from a department that has been criticized for its secretive approach toward investigating allegations of police misconduct and meting out discipline. The voluntary adoption of body cameras, if it comes with robust policies to limit officers’ ability to turn them off and on, send a strong message that the department is not afraid of accountability.

Body cameras are not a panacea, but there is enough experience with them from departments across the country to see their benefits, both for officers and the public. Most people are by now familiar with video recorded by officers, and expect to see it when there is a dispute between witnesses over basic facts.

The videos often lack context – relevant events can be too close or too far away to be captured by the camera. But they can deliver an unbiased view of how an encounter started. They also can preserve a witness’ freshest recollection of events before time and outside pressures affect their memories.

There are reasons for police and police reformers to want body cameras. A study by the Rand Corporation found that departments that use body cameras face fewer allegations of misconduct, but more cases of assaults on an officer, perhaps because the cameras behave like an independent witness.

The biggest challenge for the Maine State Police will be the solitary nature of most troopers’ work.

Unlike members of an urban police department, who start and end their shift at headquarters, many troopers hit the road from home and visit the police barracks only occasionally. This will make the storage and preservation of video recordings challenging. But that is an obstacle that can be overcome. As Cote told the Press Herald this week, it’s a matter of when, and not if, the agency adopts the technology.

Legislators should make sure that the state police are planning to use the best practices for making and preserving the recordings of police work, and that the program is adequately funded.

Maine’s biggest and most visible police department deserves to have the equipment it needs to do its job in a way that maximizes public confidence.

To the extent that body cameras and the policies that govern their use furthers that goal, this program deserves full support.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. August 4, 2021.

Editorial: An opportunity to reset the restaurant industry in CT. ‘We can do things better.’

Restaurateur Colt Taylor has served up something to chew on as his industry tries to survive COVID-19.

“At the end of the day I think so much of what has happened in the past 30 years in the food service industry was just put on a fast track to implode,” Taylor, who owns two Connecticut eateries, told Hearst Connecticut Media. “The unhealthy work conditions, the overworking of people, the underpaying of people, all these other things. So, you know, the hope is that as hard as this is right now, (it’s) an opportunity to reset the industry. We can do things better moving forward.”

It’s a bold call on Taylor’s part, as well as an acknowledgment that the pandemic alone is not responsible for the current plight of some establishments.

Can the restaurant industry be reset? It’s already starting to happen. Given the dramatic shortage of staff, many businesses, for example, are experimenting with asking diners to call up menus on their phones using QR codes and bypassing the need for a wait staff.

In too many unfortunate instances, restaurants that hung on for 16 months just couldn’t do it any longer and joined the more than 600 eateries in the state that closed in 2020.

Almost everyone lost a favorite from their personal menu. Maybe it was the place that offered a one-of-a-kind pizza topping. Or those authentic arepas. Or the culinary invention at an elite restaurant you reserved as a treat for special occasions.

Returning to indoor dining was one of the strongest signals of life returning to normal. But what appeared to be forward momentum has turned into a pendulum. Across the border, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio called Tuesday for a mandate of proof of vaccination for indoor diners.

It’s certainly a powerful incentive: Don’t get the shots, don’t eat.

Connecticut hasn’t gone that far. But the Connecticut Department of Health is “strongly” recommending everyone wear masks indoors.

Restaurant owners, of course, can set their own policies to protect themselves, their staff and their customers. That’s part of this reset. But there’s so much more to address.

Thriving restaurants can be the soul of a vibrant downtown, and it was a challenging industry long before March 2020. While doors were shuttered during the pandemic, many staffers on leave had time to reconsider their lives. Wages, work conditions and schedules inspired many people to change careers.

Some owners blame extensions of unemployment benefits for a reluctance of some former restaurant workers to return. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program offers $300 per week through Sept. 6. Opting for $300 a week over a paycheck underscores part of the problem.

That restaurant workers suddenly have leverage may be one positive outcome. To Taylor’s point, job conditions should be healthy, people should not be overworked, no one should be underpaid.

A true reset can’t ignore these problems. Otherwise, that implosion will continue to loom after COVID.

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Boston Globe. August 2, 2021.

Editorial: Massachusetts must level the playing field to halt evictions

When 93% of tenants go into court without lawyers, a broken system demands a fix.

Even in the “before time” — before COVID-19 cost lives and livelihoods — those living at poverty’s edge, those struggling and sometimes failing to pay the rent, faced an uneven battle to keep the roof over their heads — to fight eviction.

The pandemic has exacerbated that problem. Thousands who had lost their jobs were faced with losing their homes as well — a process delayed by both federal and state eviction moratoriums for a time and even by the virtual shutdown of the state’s courts for all but emergency matters.

But today, as life begins to return to normal, courts have reopened, and long-delayed bills — including rent bills — are coming due. Moratoriums were always a temporary solution, and the federal moratorium expired Saturday. Helping renters access both the programs that can help them pay those overdue rent bills and the legal advice needed to level the playing field if they do end up in court are the real answers to an admittedly longstanding problem.

Sure there is a veritable alphabet soup of advocacy groups pitching in to help tenants access programs that can help them pay the rent. But something is just not working when fewer than half of applications (48%) get approved, according to data supplied by the state Department of Housing and Community Development to State House News Service.

About 80% of those 18,000 applications (there is one application for several different assistance programs) submitted between the end of May and mid-July were incomplete when originally submitted, the department found.

So there is a strong case to be made for more assistance — by advocates, housing specialists, and legal aid lawyers at the front end of the process.

But a growing problem is what happens at the back end — when that eviction notice comes with a court date — especially for those who don’t have and can’t afford a lawyer to fight their cases.

Two years ago, then-Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston went to Beacon Hill to plead the case for mandating court-appointed attorneys for low-income tenants facing eviction. He told the Judiciary Committee that the cost of the program would be partially offset by keeping tenants out of emergency housing and shelters. Some 15% to 20% of those evicted end up in some kind of emergency housing, Walsh testified.

That bill would have taken a go-slow approach — with a task force and then a two-year implementation period. Today, there is no time to wait.

Data collected by the Massachusetts court system show that of the more than 20,000 new eviction cases filed between January 2020 and this week, some 93% of all defendants were not represented by lawyers, compared to 15.4% of landlords.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s announcement Monday reminding tenants facing eviction of the city’s partnership with Greater Boston Legal Services is helpful, but not a long-term solution.

A bill filed by state Representatives Erika Uyterhoeven and Liz Malia aims for a permanent fix to the obvious power imbalance in housing disputes. It would require the state to make free or low-cost legal counsel available to anyone faced with eviction.

“It’s critical to provide this service to everyone,” Uyterhoeven said in an interview, “to ensure legal representation on both sides.”

And while she acknowledged that lawyers now working in the field are already facing “burnout,” she added, “longer-term, if we commit hard resources (to the housing field), it will attract talent in that area.”

The bill, which gets a hearing Tuesday before the Judiciary Committee, would set up a seven-member Civil Justice Committee within but “not under the control of” the state Office of Housing and Economic Development to administer the program. The members would be appointed by the governor from the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

It would, of course, last long after this dreadful pandemic has stopped playing havoc with people’s lives and the state’s economy.

The sad fact is that the housing crisis isn’t abating any time soon and, as long as it exists, evictions will remain a part of the legal landscape. So too will the need to keep families in real housing and out of emergency shelters. Helping accomplish that is at the heart of what it means to be a community.

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Hartford Courant. August 3, 2021.

Editorial: The unvaccinated are fueling a resurgence of COVID-19 in Connecticut. We need to take strong action now. Here are six crucial steps.

The time for giving away tickets to concerts and Six Flags as a means of inducing those unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is over. The time for mandates has arrived.

The unwillingness of too many to forego the vaccine, fueled in some quarters by a politically-driven narrative that equates opting out with a twisted ideal of American freedom, has allowed a virulent version of the coronavirus to thrive. The delta variant is now racing through the population, driving up infection rates, and hospitalizations. With a relatively high vaccination rate in Connecticut, we have yet to see the spike in deaths other parts of the country are experiencing.

But the entire state is now classified as having “substantial” community transmission, with state officials strongly recommending wearing masks indoors — regardless of vaccination status. Travelers has already pushed back its plans to return employees to downtown Hartford, another blow to downtown businesses that have suffered with so many offices shuttered.

Just two months ago, it looked like we were getting ready to put the worst of the coronavirus pandemic behind us. Now we’re back to talking about kids wearing masks to school, climbing positivity rates and other potential restrictions. The so-called “breakthrough” cases among the vaccinated have sparked a good deal of attention, but it is the rapid spread of the virus among the unvaccinated that is driving the surge.

Which means it’s time for the public and private sectors to come together and get serious about making a final push to eradicate this deadly and crippling pandemic. Here are some key steps:

— The state of Connecticut and all of its 169 towns should require public employees to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing to prove they are not infected with the coronavirus. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has already imposed that requirement on city employees, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done the same for MTA workers. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has indicated that is a possibility in Connecticut, but said he was “talking to some of the union leadership as well, because we have to do that in coordination with them.” These discussions should be fast-tracked.

— Private employers should begin reopening their offices but only to those employees who have been vaccinated or undergo regular testing to prove they are not carrying the virus. Facebook, Google and a growing number of employers have announced plans along those lines. “Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a July 28 note to employees.

— The state, its hospitals and community health care providers need to double down on working with communities of color in Hartford, New Haven and other cities. Vaccination rates among Blacks and Hispanics in Connecticut continue to lag significantly behind rates for whites. There is a well-documented and understandable distrust of the establishment by communities of color, so stepping up outreach and education are critical

— Restrictions on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people should be re-imposed with exemptions for events and venues that agree to check the vaccination status of attendees. As we move into the indoor event season, weddings and other large gatherings have the potential to become super-spreader events.

— The legislature should go into special session and require employers to give at least one additional sick day to employees who undergo vaccination. Missing work because of potential side effects has been cited as one of the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy.

— The state’s indoor mask “suggestion” should become a mandate until infection numbers start to retreat again.

These measures may seem harsh — especially among those who have chosen not to be vaccinated — but we have been at this for almost 18 months and it is time to stop the spread of this virus. The best way to do that is to get close as we can to herd immunity by increasing vaccination rates. It is sad and troubling how much misinformation is out there, and how readily Republican and other right wing politicians have seized on this as a wedge issue in an effort to bolster their own support.

One critical fact keeps getting lost in this debate: This is a public health crisis, not an individual one. Any solution that is going to be lasting and effective demands a public response — from all the public. It means individuals must put aside their insistence on choice and do what’s right for the broader good. Those who say “I can get sick if I choose” fail to acknowledge that when they get sick, the odds of them getting someone else sick goes up. That logic also ignores the fact that the more coronavirus is allowed to spread, the stronger the variants that will come along.

Decisive measures in March 2020 stopped thousands from dying. At the time, we were confronting an enemy we didn’t know how to stop. We put on masks. We hunkered down.

Now we know how to stop it. Now it’s time to bring this chapter to an end.

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Manchester Journal Inquirer. August 3, 2021.

Editorial: Big bank takeovers bode ill for the little guys

Bill McGurk, former president of the Rockville Savings Bank, which eventually became United Bank, was a local banker — and proud of it. McGurk served his local community while building a strong financial institution.

McGurk’s successors consummated a merger with People’s Bank, and now People’s United is selling out to M&T Bank.

That’s how these things work these days, as larger institutions gobble up smaller ones and executives profit handsomely while surrendering a local franchise to an out-of-state institution.

We now seeing the result of M&T’s promises to serve our state — with the announcement of 747 layoffs of Connecticut employees, including more than 650 in Bridgeport. Yes, in Bridgeport, which People’s United so proudly announced would become M&T Bank’s new regional headquarters.

M&T might call it the regional headquarters, but that is probably small consolation to the newly unemployed.

A possible redeeming factor in the local banking situation is the introduction of three or more new banks into our area. Dime and Westfield (Western New England) banks that are soliciting customers and offering personal service.

A portent of things to come when “Big Banks” take over a franchise is a recent analysis of loans at Chase, Bank of America, Citi, and Morgan Stanley. This analysis shows that their loans to wealthy Americans increased by over 17% in the second quarter of this year.

As they say, the rich get richer.

There still is a chance the People’s United/M&T merger may not be approved by bank regulators. We would support any regulatory move to prevent the merger.

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