The Senate voted with broad support Thursday to strengthen an existing law aimed at stopping police from racially profiling motorists during traffic stops.
The bill modifies the 1999 Alvin Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act, which requires police departments to forward data on traffic stops to the African American Affairs Commission to assess for evidence of racial profiling. According to 2010 data, only 27 of the state’s police departments comply with the reporting aspect of the law and the data that has been reported hasn’t been assessed by the state.
The bill cleared the chamber in a 31-3 vote after around two-and-a-half hours of debate.
One of the biggest changes to the law takes the assessment of the data out of the hands of the commission, which lacks the staff and resources to address it. Instead, the bill makes the data the responsibility of the Office of Policy and Management.
In an effort to make it easier for police to comply with the law, the Senate passed an amendment requiring the creation of a standardized method for recording the data. It also creates an advisory board of community organizations to work along with OPM to discourage racial profiling.
In bringing the bill to the Senate floor, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman referenced the February killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by a member of a neighborhood watch.
Coleman said the suspicion that led to Martin’s shooting was based merely on his appearance — that he was an African American and he was wearing a hoody.
“Profiling is inappropriate and can lead to extremely tragic consequences,” Coleman said. “When law enforcement engages in profiling the results can be equally disturbing.”
Coleman compared Martin’s situation with that of his own son.
“My son is the color he is by birth. My son probably doesn’t wear hoodies but if he did — I don’t want just his mere appearance and what he looks like in terms of his race and ethnicity, to be interpreted by anyone as sufficient suspicion in order for them to invoke participation or scrutiny of law enforcement,” he said.
While Coleman argued that strengthening the law will serve as a deterrent to racial profiling in Connecticut, Sen. Kevin Witkos, a police officer in Canton, said the bill is unnecessary.
“We have the mechanism in place today, I don’t think this bill is necessary,” he said.
He said police departments haven’t ignored the law because they don’t comply with it. They don’t submit the data because the state never uses it, Witkos said. “If you’re asked to do something so many times and no one does anything with the data, you ask yourself, ‘Why are we still doing this?’”
Witkos said the state should tell departments to obey the law and review the data they turn over. He said the bill may actually result in a reduction in public safety because it requires police to give drivers a form to file a complaint against the officer.
“That’s not right,” Witkos said. “The bill further goes on to ask police officers to guess the race ethnicity of the driver. Why would we do that?”
Instead of indicating on a form what race they perceived drivers to be, officers will be inclined to check a box that says “other,” he said.
Witkos offered a series of amendments to the bill, including one that would have forced it back to a legislative committee for approval.
However, when the vote was called on the underlying bill, he was one of only three lawmakers to vote against the legislation. Republican Sens. Len Suzio and Joseph Markley also voted “no.”
The bill will still have to be raised by the House of Representatives. At an earlier press conference, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, the bill’s proponent in the House, said he expects the House leaders to address the bill before the session ends in three weeks.
“We are fully under way prepping to do the bill and our intention is to get it done,” Holder-Winfield said.