Connecticut takes a deep look at racial profiling in traffic stops

Black drivers were nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police in Connecticut, and blacks stopped were twice as likely as whites to have their vehicles searched, according to a compilation of 360,000 traffic stops from Oct. 1, 2013, through May 31, 2014.

The raw data released Thursday is the first step in what researchers and others say is one of the nation’s most ambitious attempts to measure racial profiling, using law enforcement’s most common interaction with the public: the traffic stop.

A department-by-department analysis of a full year’s data will follow in January, but the initial data was made public Thursday by researchers at Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy.

“This is in effect a national model we are creating here,” said James Fazzalaro, the project manager.

Researchers and police chiefs cautioned against using the data to judge individual departments for racial bias, saying that the statistics can be skewed by a number of factors, primarily a large influx of drivers for work or shopping.

The Hartford suburb of Farmington, for example, has a black population of just 1.62 percent, while 7.88 percent of all motorists stopped were black. That would indicate blacks were nearly five times more likely to be stopped – until the data is adjusted to reflect that Farmington’s daytime population is larger and more diverse than its resident population.

The University of Connecticut Health Center and Westfarms Mall are among the destinations that swell the town’s daytime population by an estimated 57 percent. Using another metric — the estimated driver population, or EDP — Farmington’s daytime population of black drivers actually is 5.83 percent, triple its resident population.

The result: Farmington still has an apparent disparity in the frequency of stopping black and white motorists, but it is far smaller than comparing traffic stops to its resident population.

“It’s not so clear cut,” said Douglas Fuchs , the chief of the Redding Police Department and a member of the advisory commission helping to shape and oversee the research project. “We have to understand what is behind the numbers.”

The research project gathered data on the race, gender and age of motorists stopped, the enforcement outcome of the stop, and whether a search was conducted by consent or for cause. Searches were conducted in 3 percent of all stops. Vehicles operated by blacks were more likely to be searched, but contraband was found more frequently in cars operated by whites.

The data was gathered electronically from 102 police agencies covering 168 of the state’s 169 communities under the mandates of a state law revised in response to the allegations of widespread racial profiling by East Haven police, which led to federal criminal indictments.

The report is available on line.

Suffield, the only town not to submit data, is struggling with a computer vendor issue. One of the noteworthy aspects of the projects is that the state’s Criminal Justice Information System was able to provide equipment and software that allowed the data to be readily collected in a uniform format for analysis by researchers.

“Connecticut’s requirement for police agencies to collect and report traffic stop information is the most extensive of its kind anywhere in the country,” according to the report. “The data collected and analyzed as well as the wide range of agencies required to report information is extensive. This first report includes data on more than 360,000 traffic stops conducted during the eight months since the new requirements were implemented.”

The researchers used two measures to compare the rate of traffic stops by race and ethnicity: How did the percentage compare to a community’s driving-age population, as well as to an estimate of the population that actually has access to a motor vehicle.

The estimated driver population is based on survey data on where residents work between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The EDP metric is controversial among police, who say it does not capture evening car trips to entertainment or shopping venues or summer.

In Hartford and Bloomfield, an influx of white commuters during the day could skew the numbers to create the appearance of a racial disparity. The percentage of black motorists stopped by police in those communities exactly matches the resident populations, but the numbers are disproportionately high when measured against the EDP.

“We’re not there yet,” Fuchs said of the search for the best yardsticks by which to judge individual departments.

The American Civil Liberties Union disagreed.

“We need more data and more analysis to get a better picture of what’s happening, but it’s not too soon for police departments to consider what the report suggests about their practices and what changes may be in order,” said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU in Connecticut.

The raw data makes the case that there are significant racial disparities in traffic stops, Staub said.

“This is a sign of systemic bias. It translates into a lower threshold of suspicion for people of color and the humiliation and mistreatment of innocent drivers,” she said.

Fazzalaro, the project manager, said the January report will offer a number of measures by which to assess local departments, including a comparison of departments with their demographic peers.

“We feel pretty good about that,” he said. “We feel it’s innovative.

The departments also will be judged against the “Veil of Darkness” standard, a measure of the races of motorists pulled over in daylight versus those pulled over at night, when police cannot readily identify a motorist’s race.

The project also is now collecting data on the race of persons hit with Tasers, the non-lethal police weapon that incapacitates with an electric shock.

Matthew Reed, the chief of the South Windsor Police Department, said rank and file officers are wary of the project.

“I think the officer on the street thinks, ‘Why do you continue to attack us.’ I think that the officer on the street thinks, ‘We continue to be attacked, that nothing we do is right,’ ” Reed said.

But he and Fuchs said the project has the potential to create stronger relationships between police and the communities they serve.

“I think all of this has been good,” Reed said, “because it’s stimulated a lot of dialogue that was not happening before.”

William R. Dyson, a former New Haven legislator who is chairman of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Advisory Board, said the dialogue puts the state “ahead of the curve” in confronting issues of bias.

 

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