With the eyes of the nation on a racially-charged conflict between protesters and police in Missouri, a small group of Connecticut policymakers met Thursday to discuss their ongoing efforts to identify racial profiling during traffic stops.
Last weekend’s police shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked five nights of protests and violent confrontation between demonstrators and police. The shooting and ongoing fallout have gained national attention. President Barack Obama addressed the conflict in a Thursday afternoon briefing.
During a meeting of Connecticut’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board, former state Rep. Bill Dyson said Connecticut has taken steps to get ahead of the curve on issues related to police interactions with minority groups.
“It’s not as if this issue didn’t manifest itself [in Connecticut] sometime in the past. It did. Did we deal with it as we should have? I would think it best to say ‘No, it wasn’t dealt with.’ Are we doing what we need to do now? Yes,” Dyson told reporters.
Connecticut’s latest efforts were motivated by a series of incidents in East Haven, which culminated with the U.S. Department of Justice charging four officers with targeting Latinos for harassment and beatings.
In 2012, the East Haven incidents spurred the legislature to strengthen a law requiring Connecticut police departments to collect and report data on the racial identity of motorists they stop. The bill also created the Racial Profiling Advisory Board to analyze the data.
The group is beginning to finalize a report, which will attempt to assess the information on a town-by-town basis.
Given what is transpiring in Missouri, Dyson said the public is likely to be more interested in the group’s report.
“People are going to be keenly interested in the demographics of a town. Yesterday’s [New York Times] editorial talked about profiling in other places. And here we are, bringing the issue up. But it’s something that’s not new to us, something we’ve worked on for a long time,” he said. “. . . We’re in front of this, not behind it.”
In June, the group released an overview of its findings, which suggested that police stop Black and Latino motorists at a rate that is disproportionate to the population of those groups living in the state.
Of the 303,863 drivers pulled over between October 2013 and April 2014, about 14 percent were Black and 11.9 percent were Hispanic. Meanwhile, Census data suggests that about 8 percent of the state’s driving population is Black and about 9.7 percent are Latino.
However, Michael Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice policy adviser, said it is difficult to draw real conclusions from those numbers until they are broken down further.
“It’s the subcategories that really tell you the story. You’ve really got to dig down pretty deeply,” he said. “What you’ll see soon is town-by-town, police department-by-police department.”
The panel is hoping to have those figures ready for public consumption by Labor Day. The group spent more than an hour Thursday discussing how the figures should be presented to provide the most accurate picture.
Rather than compare traffic stop data to a city’s Census population, the advisory panel is planning to estimate the racial makeup of the people driving through the city during the work day.
The hope is that the adjusted estimates will more closely mirror the population police actually encounter on the roads, but even these estimates are controversial.
Orlando Rodriguez, an analyst for the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said the estimates may be based on questionable data. Sometimes no data is better than bad data, he said.
“We can talk statistics all day, but public perception trumps statistics,” he said. “. . . You have to think about the real-world implications of this. You may not want it to be used a certain way but it will be used. If a reporter puts something very inflammatory — it could undo everything you tried to do here.”
Others in the group insisted their efforts put Connecticut far ahead of most other states on the issue of racial profiling.
“What we’re doing in Connecticut is extraordinary when you look at what has happened in other places,” Jim Fazzalaro, a project manager for the panel, said. “With the exception being Rhode Island and Massachusetts, almost no one has attempted a statewide analysis.”
Dyson said Connecticut has had reason to take action on the topic following the East Haven controversy.
“We are far ahead of many other states on this issue because we had our awakening sometime in the past and we responded to that and put together an advisory group to begin to rectify some of these issues,” he said.