Connecticut Police Departments Aren't Doing What They're Supposed To To Fight Racial Profiling
April 19, 2011
The Connecticut state legislature is considering reforms to the state's Penn Act, a law intended to combat racial profiling. It's been on the books for more than a decade, and requires police departments throughout the state to keep track of the race and ethnicity of people they pull over for traffic stops.
But most departments never bother to report the data, and in an interesting bureaucratic, slap-of-the-forehead-type twist, the data that is collected — and there's quite a bit of it — can't be analyzed. It comes in a coded format that might make sense to a computer, according to those involved, but is virtually useless to a human being.
Glenn Cassis of the African-American Affairs Commission is the guy who's supposed to collect and analyze the data. And “the guy” is pretty accurate in this context. As Cassis explains, his “commission,” which is theoretically tasked with analyzing the details of about 500,000 traffic stops every year, consists of two people.
“You spoke to one person who answered the phone,” Cassis explains, “and now you're talking to me.”
Cassis says the data that's reported by police agencies is spotty at best. In 2010, only 19 departments submitted all of the data required by law. Another 50 police departments submitted only partial data, and 100 others submitted nothing.
Even the data that does come in, Cassis says, is impossible to work with. It's released in a coded format for which Cassis says he doesn't have a key. More importantly, there's no computer program that could be used to compile and separate the data. And to complicate things further, different departments use a variety of different formats, some paper, some electronic. The result is a mess that's not much good to anyone.
Reforms to the Penn reporting requirements are intended to standardize the data collection, Cassis says, and also to provide a verifiable, real-time record of the traffic stop itself. One of the reforms would require officers making a stop to issue a printed receipt, so the driver has his or her own record. Drivers would also receive instructions on how to file a complaint if they feel they've been stopped based on their race.
Another potential change to the law would add a set of shiny new teeth — departments who fail to report data correctly would be punished with the withholding of state funds, though the bill doesn't specify an amount. The changes would also mean that data would be routed to the Office of Policy and Management and the Criminal Justice Information System Governing Board, rather than the short-staffed African-American Affairs Commission. The changes were passed out of the Judiciary Committee on April 6, and will now head to a vote by the full state senate.
The Connecticut Association of Police Chiefs did not return calls for comment, but they've told other news agencies that they oppose the receipt requirement, fearing it will add time to stops and drive up costs.
For police agencies in municipalities surrounding Hartford, traffic stop data is collected in real time by computers installed in police cruisers. But the information takes a circuitous route to its ultimate destination. First it's transmitted to and compiled by a private company called Telepartner International, based in Rocky Hill. Then it's forwarded to the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), who then pass it on to the African-American Affairs Commission, i.e. Cassis.
Cheryl Assis coordinates public safety programs at CRCOG, and says the data is put together in the format mandated by the chief state's attorney. The president of Telepartner, David Kimball, said the same thing in a voicemail message.
Aside from a lack of reporting, Cassis says he also wonders about the quality of some of the data that has been reported, after hearing anecdotal reports of people miraculously changing their ethnicities.
“People have been stopped, African-Americans have been stopped … but when they look at the ticket they're listed as a white person,” Cassis says. He said he believes in some cases the changes are made deliberately, to skew the reports.
The Penn Act was initiated after questions about racial profiling raised by, among others, late state legislator Alvin W. Penn. Penn helped push the law after he was subject to a questionable stop in Trumbull in the late 1990s.
He told the New York Times in 1998 that he was detained in Trumbull when he turned his car around on a dead end street. The officer blocked him in with his police cruiser, he said, and then asked Penn, who was black, if he knew what town he was in.
“I asked why I was being stopped and why I needed to be aware of which town I was in,” Penn told the New York Times. “I wanted to know what difference that made.”
At the time, the concept of “racial profiling” was so new — or so rarely acknowledged — that the New York Times felt the need to define the term for their readers.
The Trumbull Police Department became the focus of further scrutiny around that time after the leak of a police memo which seemed to encourage officers to profile non-white drivers travelling in the city. Some officers in the all-white department said the memo — which came after a series of high-profile crimes — was a subtle reference to the practice of pulling over non-white drivers as a matter of policy.
“One form of deterrence” the memo reads, “might be to develop a sense of proclivity toward the type of persons and vehicles which are usually involved in these crimes … not only is it our obligation to enforce the motor vehicle laws, but in doing so, we are provided with a profile of our community and those who travel within its boundaries.”
Roger Vann, who worked to pass the Penn Act and was then the president of the Connecticut NAACP, told the Times in 1998 that the memo from Trumbull confirmed what many have known for years.
''Anyone who is black and has driven a car knows all too well that this is something that continues to happen all across this nation,'' said Mr. Vann.