At least one lawmaker is sick of hearing excuses from local police about why they haven’t been complying with a 1999 law requiring them to report traffic stop data to determine if they are racially profiling motorists.
That lawmaker is Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who had a lively exchange with members of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, during a public hearing on a bill that would strengthen the Alvin Penn Racial Prohibition Act. The law currently requires police departments to forward data on traffic stops to the African American Affairs Commission for assessment.
However, few departments comply with the requirements and the African American Affairs Commission has yet to release an evaluation of the data.
The police chiefs told the committee that they supports the bill but cautioned against using the data to cast the state’s law enforcement community as engaged in race-based policing.
“I don’t think it helps anybody to paint with a wide brush Connecticut law enforcement as being insensitive racial minorities and ethnic minorities,” South Windsor Police Chief Matt Reed said.
Holder-Winfield, the committee’s vice chair who also championed the bill last year, took exception to the statement.
“Those of us who have been speaking about this have been very careful in choosing our words and saying that’s not the case, and yet you bring this to us as if that’s what’s going on,” he said.
Holder-Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven, said the association claimed to be supportive of the bill, but wants to see changes to how the data that’s collected gets evaluated. At the same time, they aren’t able to tell lawmakers what those changes might be, he said.
“I have to tell you, being honest, that I believe that most police officers are doing their job. But when you approach this situation in the way that you’re approaching it, I don’t really feel you’re being as helpful as can be,” he said.
Telling lawmakers what isn’t working is not as helpful as coming with ideas for how to make the system work, he said.
But the police focused mostly on the shortcomings of the current system. They expressed frustration with the lack of guidance regarding exactly what they’re supposed to be reporting. According to 2010 data only 27 of the state’s 92 police departments have consistently submitted reports on traffic stops.
Reed questioned whether that was a fair assessment of police compliance. He said his department has collected the data every year but the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office has never specified a format for reporting it.
“I don’t agree that only 27 are complying because I know there are departments in the position I’m in, where we’ve collected the data, I’ve got a huge database of data. I don’t know what information is considered a ‘summary.’ What data do you want to be sent out?” he asked.
Reed tried to explain the host of different reporting possibilities departments could provide, but Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore interrupted.
“I think we can recognize the system is broken and rather than pointing fingers, or he said she said, we’re here to tell you we support fixing the system,” he said.
Salvatore said if someone was actually evaluating the data, police departments would be more inclined to submit it. Instead, they’ve gotten mixed signals from the African American Affairs Commission and the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office.
Holder-Winfield rejected the argument.
“The police, who I think do a wonderful job on the whole, are tasked with enforcing the law. When the police look at a law and say, ‘no one is doing the other part of the law so we’re not going to do our part, which requires we submit the data,’ there is an issue,” he said.
Reed said the association wanted to see a scientific system be put in place to evaluate the data to determine whether its indicative of racial profiling. It’s unclear to police what the statistical benchmark for racial profiling is, he said.
“What will be seen as satisfactory in the eyes of those who will be questioning whether we are engaged in race-based policing,” he said. “We don’t know what the standard is.”
Everyone seemed to agree on a provision bill that shifts the responsibility of evaluating the data to the Office of Policy and Management. Glenn Cassis, executive director of the African Americans Affairs Commission, said with just two staff members, his agency doesn’t have the resources to evaluate data on thousands of traffic stops.
“They have the resources. We don’t have it in our office. For the last couple years our budget has been cut and we’re down to just two staff members,” he said.
Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU in Connecticut, went over the history of the legislation late last year for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
She said the chief state’s attorney had from 1999 until 2003 to develop a uniform way for police departments to report their data, but he never did. The reporting responsibilities were then handed over to the African-American Affairs Commission, which has yet to produce a complete report.
This year’s legislation would require the Office of Policy and Management to collect the data and complete the reports.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration did not support similar legislation last year. However, his administration found a $1.2 million federal Department of Transportation grant that was about to expire to put toward the collection of this data.
“It appears that for the past five years federal funding has been available to pay for racial identity data gathering and analysis,” Malloy said in January. “I cannot speak to the actions of the previous administration in allowing these funds to languish, but I can assure Connecticut residents that my administration is committed to enforcing the laws on the books and has moved forward to get this data collected, reported, and evaluated.”