Police vehicle light
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Police officers conducting traffic stops in Connecticut are now explicitly required to notify drivers of the reasons for the stop under a bill signed into law on Monday by Gov. Ned Lamont. 

The new statute, which went into effect when Lamont signed it, makes official a policy which many law enforcement officials say is already in practice and most drivers assumed was already the law of the land.

However, Sen. Herron Gaston, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, said the experiences of drivers often varied with the color of their skin. 

“A lot of it has to do with who gets the privilege of being told why they’re being stopped, and that dignity behind the wheel, and who is not afforded that privilege or dignity behind the wheel based on, perhaps, the implicit bias of the law enforcement officials that’s pulling them over,” Gaston said Tuesday. 

The law consists of one sentence, requiring police officers to verbally inform drivers of the purpose of the stop before the end of the interaction. It includes no penalties for officers who fail to do so. Proponents of the policy expect disciplinary actions for noncompliance to be handled by individual police departments. 

During the public hearing process, police officials did not object to a verbal notification requirement. Some said officers were already trained to provide the information and many departments already required it. 

The bill found bipartisan support in the legislature. It passed unanimously in the Senate and cleared the House with votes from members of both parties. However, some worried the new statute could discourage the state’s law enforcement community on the heels of police accountability legislation passed in 2020. 

“My fear is that the negative effect is the police officers may say, ‘Hey, this is another thing that’s been done to demoralize our profession.’ And I hate to see that,” Rep. Greg Howard, a Republican and detective with the Stonington Police Department, said during a floor debate.

Although he voted against the bill over concerns it sent the wrong message to police, Howard agreed officers should be explaining the reasons for traffic stops. 

On Tuesday, Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at New Haven University and former legislator, said the new law was an important example of “procedural justice,” a philosophy under which police clearly communicate the reasons for their actions to members of the public. 

“Whether it’s a motor vehicle stop or a search warrant or an interaction on the street, research shows that if police are explaining to people what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, it won’t make people happy but at least they’re more likely to think what is happening is fair,” he said.

“Racial profiling is obviously a thing and I think having an officer explain to someone why they were stopped takes the edge off of the perception that you’ve been racially profiled,” Lawlor added. 

Lawlor said he knew of no other state that had made a law requiring the notification.

Last year, Virginia’s state Senate voted in favor of a similar bill, which would have prevented police from issuing a fine for failure to provide identification if the officer had not first explained the reason for the stop, according to the Virginia Mercury. A House subcommittee later voted to table the bill

By adopting its own policy on traffic stop notification, Gaston said Connecticut was serving as an example to other states. 

“Our goal is to increase public safety and to deescalate traffic stops that could potentially jeopardize officers or motorist safety,” he said. “I am proud that Connecticut is leading the nation in taking the first step in reforming our practices that will serve as a model for what constitutes good and responsible policing.”