Minority drivers were pulled over for equipment violations, like burned-out tail lights, at higher rates than white drivers in most of the eight towns examined in the state’s latest report on racial disparities in police traffic stop patterns.
The report released Thursday by the Central Connecticut State University Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy focused on the towns of Ansonia, Berlin, Darien, Monroe, Newtown, Norwich and Ridgefield, which were identified in a statewide analysis of more than 90 police departments for having statistically significant disparities in police traffic stop patterns. Statistically significant disparities do not constitute proof of racial profiling, researchers said, but justify taking a closer look.
The report was presented to the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project Advisory Board Thursday. The equipment violations detailed in the report were a common theme during the board’s discussion.
“I cringe every time I hear my dispatcher say the word, calling out the officer, saying it’s ‘non-compliant,’ ” said Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm. “When did we become the bill collectors for town government … for people whose registration hasn’t been done in 90 days?”
Drumm said that over four decades as an officer he has long been uneasy with the police department’s role in handing out costly fines for violations that don’t immediately impact public safety.
“Some guy, I remember this vividly, going down the road at 73 miles an hour gets stopped for speeding,” Drumm said. “There’s two or three car seats in the beat up car he’s trying to get to the gate before he won’t be allowed in, to clock in for work, and he’s trying to do the right thing and here we are trying put on that person a ticket that’s going to change their life for a period of time and how they feed their family.”
Drumm’s comments struck a different tone from chiefs who have largely limited their past public comments to criticizing the analysis itself, rather than engaging on the policing practices it analyzes.
Researchers who presented the report Thursday said they focused on geography and officer-level behavior to more specifically describe where the disparities were, but the fact that a disparity exists doesn’t mean individual officers are involved in discriminatory behavior. These disparities can show up when enforcement is more concentrated in places where minorities are more likely to be.
In most of the eight towns examined in the report, police conducted the overwhelming majority of their enforcement on a few very busy stretches of road that cross through the town, like the Post Road and I-95 in Darien, Route 7 in Ridgefield, and the Berlin Turnpike in Berlin. These busy roadways generally had more diverse driving populations than their resident populations.
Drumm’s department, it turns out, doesn’t issue a lot of equipment stops compared with the rest of the state. Researchers wrote that while there was a racial disparity in equipment stops, there were too few of those stops in Madison to draw any conclusions, as was the case in some of the other eight towns as well.
Drumm was clear that he wasn’t criticizing his fellow officers, but believes the report highlights the need to rethink the policies, enforcement projects and laws that dictate what is expected of officers.
“Listen, we have to enforce the laws — speed does kill, drunk driving, texting all that effects our lives. But there’s some things, and that common pattern I see with that infamous equipment, we’re sitting outside the gate of some company doing enforcement on seat belts — I get it, I understand it, we’ve seen the message enough on TV,” Drumm said. “We accept the federal money and we do the project, and officers go out there and they spend an afternoon writing tickets for whatever the project is at the time…”
Bill Dyson, a former lawmaker and chairman of the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project Advisory Board, found Drumm’s points insightful.
“I think it’s fair to say we appreciate that message,” Dyson said. “I never thought about the state using law enforcement for tax collection. I never thought about it. I think we do that.”
“I feel the openness that people have, the willingness to share and talk, and that’s a thing that we haven’t done a lot of,” Dyson said. “We haven’t talked. We just don’t talk.”
Although the report points out the disparities, it’s up to individual departments to judge whether they want to make any changes. New this year, police departments were offered the chance to submit written responses to be included verbatim in the report, which several departments opted to do.
Echoing throughout the researchers’ findings is the fact that different towns in Connecticut, and different areas of specific towns, can have starkly different racial and ethnic populations. In that way, the issue goes far beyond what’s happening on the roads.
“It’s the effects of who lives where and who doesn’t […] it’s a housing issue,” Dyson said. “The ones being stopped or identified don’t live there. Well, why don’t they live there? … It becomes a reflection of what goes on in our society.”