Lawmakers and civil rights groups called Monday for an overhaul of the state’s racial-profiling law, following a Courant report showing black and Hispanic motorists pulled over by police were far more likely to receive a ticket than white drivers stopped for the same offense.
“This data that the Hartford Courant revealed only verifies what we know has been going on for quite some time,” said Imam Mohammad Ansari of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP. “We’ve been saying for years that this and other types of racial profiling are still going on. This is not new.”
But the analysis of traffic stops, coupled with the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation of alleged discrimination by some officers in East Haven, has sparked renewed calls to strengthen the state’s law on profiling. Speakers at a morning press conference at the Legislative Office Building said the current law has been widely ignored and lacks the teeth to compel police agencies to investigate and root out possible bias.
The Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act was passed in 1999 and required police agencies across the state to collect data on traffic stops and submit the reports to the state. But only about a third regularly submit the information, and the Courant’s analysis was the first ever to compare how whites, blacks and Hispanics fared after police stops for specific offenses.
“This important bill that was passed is not being enforced, nobody’s paying any attention to it, and a lot of people are being harmed,” said state Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport, who holds the seat once held by Alvin Penn.
Isaias T. Diaz, chairman of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission said he and others would press for legislation that would give the Office of Policy and Management responsibility for collecting and analyzing traffic-stop data. That task is currently the responsibility of the African-American Affairs Commission, which has consistently reported that it lacks the resources to complete an analysis. Diaz said legislation would also establish an advisory committee to review compliance with the law.
State Rep. Kelvin Roldán, D-Hartford, went a step further and said he would support legislation authorizing the appointment of a special master to supervise departments found to be out of compliance with the law.
The Courant analyzed data on more than 100,000 traffic stops and found that for 13 categories of offenses – from speeding to running stop signs to having a broken tail light – Hispanic motorists stopped by police were more likely to receive a citation than whites stopped for the same offense. Black motorists were more likely than whites to be cited in 10 of the 13 categories. Among motorists stopped for running a stop sign, for example, 22 percent of white motorists received a ticket or summons, compared to 28 percent of black drivers and 40 percent of Hispanics.
“This is not ‘disparity,’ ” said State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven. “This is purely discrimination.”
Several Connecticut police officials, however, have said they do not believe officers engage in discriminatory practices and say other factors may lead to higher ticketing rates for blacks and Hispanics. They point out that the data collected during traffic stops identifies only the violation that led to the stop, and say a motorist could be pulled over for a minor violation but receive a ticket for a more serious offense, such as driving without a license. That would skew the data if blacks and Hispanics on average are more likely to be in violation of those more-serious offenses. Others say black and Hispanic drivers may on average have worse driving histories, which could affect whether an officer issues a ticket.
Some speakers said the data may under-report the racial and ethnic disparity in traffic stops. Adam Osmond of Farmington said both he and his wife have been ticketed by local police and identified as white, even though they are both dark-skinned blacks.
“I don’t think anybody in this room could confuse me being white,” Osmond said. “In my opinion, this was done in order to lower the percentage of black people [counted as having been ticketed] and increase the percentage of white people.”
Even before the Courant’s Feb. 26 report, lawmakers were pressing for legislation that would shift responsibility for analyzing the traffic stop data from the African-American Affairs Commission to OPM. A similar proposal failed to come up for a vote last year, but activists Monday said the issue’s higher profile gives them confidence that lawmakers would approve that change, and would be open to a broader overhaul of the law as well.
“I’m not just upset about the fact that we have racial profiling going on, I’m upset about the fact that we’re here this year after attempting to do a fix to this bill last year,” said state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “There is no one in this building who has any legitimate reason why they would vote against or work against a bill to fix the bill that passed in 1999.”