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Toothless law requires traffic stop data that ends up rarely used

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published 03/03/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 03/03/2013 12:45 AM

After revamping the law that requires police departments to record information about traffic stops, the state next year hopes to release its most comprehensive analysis of whether race plays a factor in whom the police decide to pull over.

Under a 1999 law, when police stop a vehicle, they must record the driver's race, gender, age and other information on a traffic stop card.

Police departments send the cards to the state African-American Affairs Commission, which is supposed to analyze them to see whether officers are stopping drivers based on race.

But in the 14 years since the law was passed, the data has been analyzed only once, in 2001. Now, the cards gather dust in a closet at the state Capitol in Hartford, and electronic data files remain unopened on desktop computers in the small, cramped offices of the African-American Affairs Commission.

With the data going unused, many departments have stopped filling out the cards.

Under changes to the Alvin W. Penn Act last year, the state Office of Policy and Management will be - for the first time - in charge of analyzing the data and should release its first report by July 2014.

The new law, adopted in June, also created the Racial Profiling Prohibition Advisory Board, which has recommended that all departments record the same information during traffic stops beginning in July.

"I believe it's the best alternative and far ahead of many other places in the country," Glenn Cassis, executive director of the state African-American Affairs Commission, said of the new law. "A lot has been done in setting up the system and making it effective. Will it be perfect? No, but it's the best process available at this time."

The advisory board - a group of almost 30 people, including academics, state employees, state representatives, law enforcement personnel and members of the commission - has been working on the changes to the system.

"It's a big project," said John DeCarlo, a University of New Haven professor and co-chairman of the advisory board. "And obviously the goal is to get it right and provide the State of Connecticut two tools: first, to allow us to find out if there's some kind of systemic racial profiling happening, and secondly to allow us to give police chiefs a method to use as an early warning system, so if they become cognizant of an issue of racial profiling, they will have a method to head it off before it becomes an issue organizationally or individually for particular police officers."

The group, which last month released a 70-page progress report, is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and has been assisted by Central Connecticut State University and its Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy.

'Way too big for one small department'

Adopted in 1999, the original Alvin Penn Act was named for a state representative who had complained of being racially profiled during a Trumbull traffic stop in 1996.

Information gathered by the police about the driver and the stop, such as time of day, violation and disposition, initially was sent to the chief state's attorney, who was required to complete an annual report.

A 2001 report didn't find "widespread disparities as a function of race or ethnicity," but did find disparities as to who was issued a summons and who was searched.

In 2003, the law was renamed The Alvin Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act, and oversight and analysis was handed over to the state African-American Affairs Commission.

Cassis, the AAAC executive director for the last six years, said the group has neither the money nor staff to analyze the data. And in the last several years, most of the 192 police departments required to submit the data either stopped collecting it or no longer send it to the AAAC. There was little incentive to do so and no repercussions for stopping.

The AAAC never released an annual report.

"The bottom line is implementation, having the resources to implement it and having agencies to support it," Cassis said. "This is way too big for one small department in the state to manage and implement. It required larger entities, participation by other groups. That was one of the biggest problems."

Goal is prevention

The advisory group, which is expected to meet regularly and stay involved even after the law is implemented, seems optimistic that this time, 14 years later, the law will work.

"It is important to note that a standardized method for data collection is only one component to prevent future profiling activities," the group wrote in its January progress report. "Public awareness and education, effective training, a rigorous complaint process - all are tools within a diverse toolbox available to prevent the occurrence of racial profiling in traffic stops and enhance trust between communities and law enforcement."

Members of the advisory board don't think the cards give an accurate and complete picture of a traffic stop. They've recommended, for instance, that more information be gathered to give a truer picture of the driving population, so data gathered won't be simply compared to the demographics of a particular town.

"We want to know ... is this area where the stop was made an off-ramp to (Interstate) 95?" said Ken Barone, a policy and research specialist at Central Connecticut State University. "Transient population police stops in that area will be very different than those on Main Street. Driving population during the day is going to be different because of that major traffic generator, and we have to be able to account for that."

The board also has recommended that the traffic cards include an explanation of why a car was searched and the results of the search.

"We're going to try our best to aggregate all that," Barone said. "Was a plate reader used? Was it on a highway? How fast were they going, looking at speed? It becomes more important to look at, once they're pulled over, now what happens?"

Barone acknowledged that more data collection would be required of officers. New London police officers record 15 data points on index cards known as "yellow cards."

"We're trying to be really mindful in that sense, it's been in the forefront of our minds, in making sure there's no undue burden (for officers) to spend an exorbitant amount of time at each traffic stop, because that could get dangerous," Barone said.

He said a computer program that automatically enters fields such as the date, time, officer name and incident number would increase efficiency and accuracy. Such a "unified traffic citation" system is the ultimate goal, Barone said, but that's expensive.

The state is working to upgrade every police department by 2015 to an electronic citation system, which would ease such an undertaking, Barone said.

Peter Reichard, New London's acting police chief, said one concern is the cost of the changes, including electronic and software updates.

The advisory board has discussed requiring officers to hand drivers a form explaining how they can complain if they feel they've been racially profiled.

The potential cost, though, of "another unfunded mandate by the state" is of some concern to Reichard.

"Is the state going to come up with a template form for that, for everybody to use, or are we going to have to come up with our own?" he said. "Obviously, it's going to be specific for each department."

'Law has no teeth'

Without any concrete analysis of the traffic stop data from the last decade-plus, the first report, due in July 2014, is expected to be the most comprehensive look ever at statewide traffic data.

Members of the committee and the public are eager to see the results.

"I came to the table with an open mind, but I also don't believe this is a rampant problem in Connecticut," said Douglas Fuchs, Redding police chief and a member of the advisory board. "We want to use this data to identify those folks for whom it is a problem and, from a chief's perspective, that is paramount for all of us. I will be very interested to see what this first round of data yields. Everyone needs to look at the data with an open mind so that we can have more conversations."

Barone said those attending town hall-style meetings around the state said they wanted results that conclusively show, or don't show, racial profiling.

"A lot of people in the public want a clear answer, and that's a tough thing to determine, even with the data available," Barone said. "In my own mind, the data serves as a way to keep things transparent and a way to begin and to continue discussions between the police and the community about what the data says."

DeCarlo, the advisory board co-chairman, said any problems identified by the report will need to be addressed.

"Whether there is racial profiling or not, it is incumbent upon government to take a look and see if there is a problem, and if there is, to fix it," DeCarlo said. "Any good government is run with the consent of the people, and if the people feel there's an issue, then it has to be looked at."

Punishment for any discrepancies is minimal. Barone said the Office of Policy and Management can withhold certain state aid from departments, which is about the only recourse available.

That doesn't sit well with Donald Wilson, president of the New London chapter of the NAACP. At a forum in Hartford, Wilson said, community members called for stricter measures for departments that violate the law and for officers who appear to be racially profiling.

"They're setting it up so they can gather information, but the law really has no teeth," Wilson said. "Its only tooth is the ability to withhold funds, and if you're the police and are not complying, the law does nothing to deter that type of behavior. Worse than that, we already know, and they know, that police can misinterpret the information on those stops."

Wilson said union protections for police officers make them immune even to reprimands if they're found racially profiling.

"We need to spell it out to them that if they take advantage of citizens and put them in the wrong light, that they can possibly lose their jobs," he said. "A lot of people think they can change, but I'll tell you right now, it won't change until every citizen is afforded the same rights under the law."

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