2021 is fast turning into yet another year when white people realize that Black Americans were right about the police all along. From the jarring contrast between the police response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol insurrection, to the heartbreakingly rare sight of a police officer being convicted for a murder everyone saw on video, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that American police departments still have massive problems with race, violence and accountability.
The question remains: what are we going to do about it?
Connecticut’s police accountability law, signed by Gov. Ned Lamont last year, made a lot of positive changes. But I remain convinced that a big part of the problem is that we ask police to do too much, and that some of what the police do requires vastly different and conflicting skill sets from the rest of their job.
It’s worth looking at everything police do and asking ourselves, why is a police officer doing this? Should that police officer be carrying a firearm while doing this job? Could some other kind of profession do it better?
The goal would be a police department focused only on the core of what most people assume the police are actually for: responding to, investigating and preventing crime.
So how do we downsize the police?
The obvious place to start is mental health and wellness checks. Police are called to check in on people who may be having mental health or other issues, and sometimes these checks can escalate out of control or turn into tragedy. It’s not hard to see why. Police are a source of trauma for a lot of people, especially Black Americans, so asking police to check in on already traumatized people feels like a very, very bad idea.
Social workers and people trained in de-escalating conflict would be better choices here. In some places, this is already being done.
But the most dramatic change we could make to policing would be to get officers out of the business of traffic enforcement. A traffic stop led to the death of Daunte Wright in Minnesota earlier this month when he was pulled over for allegedly having his air freshener blocking his rearview mirror. The police found he had an outstanding warrant, and shot Wright as he tried to drive away. Supposedly, the police officer who shot him thought she was using her taser. This is only the latest example of traffic stops and traffic enforcement turning deadly. Black people especially have suffered from these absolutely preventable killings.
The truth is, police departments spend a huge amount of their time doing traffic enforcement and management. How much?
That’s a good question. Connecticut has 92 municipal police departments of varying sizes. Some of them, especially in wealthy suburbs, spend far, far more time doing traffic stops than responding to crime. To figure out just how much, I looked at the number of police officers per town, the crime index for each town, the number of traffic stops for each department, and then worked out the ratio of arrests to traffic stops per officer.
The data came from a 2016 Office of Legislative Research report, the annual report of the Connecticut uniform crime reporting program, and the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project’s traffic stop data. All data is from 2016.
There’s a lot to take in with these reports. First, the number of police per resident is incredibly variable. New Haven and Hartford, both of which have a high crime index (which is the total number of reported murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts), also have a high ratio of police to residents. I’m sure there’s plenty to unpack as to why, but we’ll just go with the number for now.
But coming up third, fourth, and fifth on this list are Old Saybrook, Orange, and Greenwich, all of which have very low crime indexes. Why does Greenwich need 181 officers? Other towns with low crime indexes in the top ten are Derby, Woodbridge, Seymour, and Monroe. Greenwich and Monroe both have around 3 arrests per year per officer.
What about traffic stops? Some towns have a very high number of traffic stops per resident. Once again, these are mostly very wealthy towns with low crime indexes. Wilton has one of the lowest crime indexes in the state (72), but the highest number of traffic stops per 1,000 residents.
To get an idea of how much time police spend on traffic enforcement, I calculated the ratio of arrests to stops. This is imperfect data, because arrests can happen during stops, but it gives us at least something of an idea. The smaller the number, the more time spent on traffic stops than on arrests. Once again, the top ten are wealthier, whiter towns. The full data is here.
But even cities with higher crime indexes perform a lot of traffic stops. Manchester, for example, had an astonishing 12,267 stops.
So let’s ask ourselves: do police officers armed with guns need to be doing all these traffic stops? What if we replaced them with traffic wardens, either unarmed or armed only with nonlethal weapons like tasers? We could put up speed cameras and red light cameras, too.
These two changes alone would allow the remaining police to focus on crime and crime prevention, and prevent an uncountable number of potential tragedies. We should seriously consider them as the work to reform the police continues.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.