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Is Racial Profiling a Problem in Hartford?

Many say it is.

by Dan D’Ambrosio

August 24, 2010

*This story contains a correction.

The issue of racial profiling is working its way to the front burner in Hartford as City Councilman Luis Cotto continues to push for an ordinance that would place new limits on how city police conduct searches and launch investigations.

Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts is pushing back against Cotto and the ordinance, insisting officers would be hamstrung by the new restrictions, left unable to do their jobs effectively.

Cotto, who says he experienced profiling firsthand as a “young man of color” in Hartford, wants to limit police to conducting searches based solely on having probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

The proposed ordinance would also prohibit police from selecting anyone for “surveillance, searches, pat-downs, interrogations, or arrest” based on race, ethnicity, country of origin or religion.

In addition, Cotto’s ordinance would prevent the Hartford Police Department from sharing information with federal authorities unless a crime is suspected, or there is a state of emergency declared by the governor or the feds. And the ordinance specifically prohibits Hartford Police from following in Danbury Police’s footsteps and cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

“One of the provisions calls for us to not involve ourselves in the [federal] process that deputizes our police department into dealing with immigration law,” says Cotto. “That’s something where there is no compromise.”

At a public hearing and a meeting of the city council’s Quality of Life and Public Safety Committee last week to discuss the ordinance, Roberts listened to the testimony of people who said they had been profiled. He presented the public safety committee with three pages of “talking points” detailing his opposition to the proposed ordinance, including his belief that it limits HPD’s ability to infiltrate gangs, conduct background checks, or even act on reports of suspected child abuse.

“It would be horrific to our citizens, it would be an affront on the way we serve the public,” says Roberts. “I couldn’t even conduct an investigation. I’d have to get a search warrant to do surveillance. That’s not how you do it.”

Drawing the distinction between probable cause and reasonable suspicion — the current standard for launching an investigation — Roberts explains that under the proposed ordinance, if somebody tells one of his officers that a man in a white shirt and blue pants is dealing drugs out of a house on Main Street — reasonable suspicion — he can’t even go look at the house. According to the proposed ordinance there’s no probable cause to suspect a crime is being committed based solely on a tip from a neighborhood resident. Probable cause, says Roberts, is a high bar.

“Probable cause means I can arrest you,” he says. “I’m not looking at you; I’m going to arrest you. Reasonable suspicion means I can work toward getting probable cause.”

Cotto calls the probable cause/reasonable suspicion argument one of the more valid arguments Roberts makes. And he says he’s open to modifying the language of the proposed ordinance if it’s warranted.

“As we go back and forth, if he explains this to us I don’t think there’s a problem with changing how that’s written,” says Cotto. “That’s what the committee process is for.”

The ordinance will need a majority of five votes to pass the council (once it returns to its full nine members following the departure of Pedro Segarra, who became mayor, and Matt Ritter, who is running to be a state representative*) and then would go to Mayor Pedro Segarra, who could sign it into law or veto it. If Segarra vetoes the measure, the council would need seven votes to override his veto. Segarra could also allow the ordinance to become law without signing it, indicating he’s opposed to it but knows the council would override a veto.

But Cotto will not accept the notion that profiling is not really a problem in Hartford, or that there are already sufficient laws on the books to prevent it, both of which Roberts contends in his talking points. Roberts points out that HPD’s Internal Affairs Division has received no complaints of racial profiling and that of 26 complaints concerning traffic stops compiled by the city’s Office of Human Relations, only one alleged racial profiling, and it was determined to be unfounded.

Cotto says the absence of complaints means nothing.

“If the people do not trust the police department and enough people either do not know they can file a grievance or just don’t trust it will be given its due process, they won’t file a complaint,” he says.

Cotto points out that at last week’s public hearing at least three or four people complained about being profiled. At a forum on racial profiling sponsored by the chief state’s attorney’s office and the state African-American Affairs Commission in June, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said there was a time Hartford Police “adopted a zookeeper mentality” toward the city, stopping outsiders in a sort of reverse profiling and telling them to leave. Police have observed suburbanites coming to Hartford to buy drugs, then complaining when they’re robbed.

In an atmosphere that includes lots of violence and lots of drug dealing, police are challenged to recognize not every young African-American or Latino is a member of a gang, said Coleman.

“Three black males in a car are not necessarily doing a drug deal,” he said. “Yet they’ll be stopped for making a turn without signaling for the purpose of checking the car for illegal activities.”

Chief Roberts says he has never claimed that profiling doesn’t exist; only that HPD has no tolerance for it.

“We never said it does not happen, because it does,” says Roberts. “I would be naďve to sit here and tell you, ‘No, that doesn’t happen.’ But at this police department we don’t tolerate it and we don’t condone it and we’ve done a tremendous job, I think, of turning the culture around.”

Long before the profiling controversy began to heat up in Hartford, the Connecticut legislature passed the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 2000, named after the late senator who was himself a victim of profiling.

The law required 110 police departments across the state and the Department of Public Safety to provide annual summary reports of traffic stops, including who was stopped and why, to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, which was supposed to analyze the reports to search for patterns of profiling. The chief state’s attorney contracted with Central Connecticut State University to report out the data, which it did for the first several years the law was on the books.

“Central has a pretty good ability to do this kind of thing but there were people dissatisfied with that [arrangement] who felt they couldn’t trust prosecutors to do this,” says Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the state judiciary committee. “The suggestion was made to transfer it.”

The responsibility was given to the state African-American Affairs Commission, which has never produced a report, and which in 2008 admitted only 27 of 110 police departments were even submitting statistics.

“The reports have not been reviewed by the African-American Affairs Commission,” stated the agency’s 2008 annual report. “No funding was provided by the General Assembly to manage the data and the Commission did not have resources to analyze the reports.”

Nothing has changed in 2010. The African-American Affairs Commission, which has been fighting against elimination in recent budget battles, today consists of Executive Director Glenn Cassis and an assistant. There’s still no money to analyze the few profiling reports that continue to dribble in, in varying formats. Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed eliminating all six legislative commissions in 2009, including the commissions on children and aging, to save the state $4.8 million. Although it survived along with the others, the African-American Affairs Commission’s budget was cut in half, from $360,000 annually to $180,000.

Hartford Police provided reports until it became obvious several years ago nothing was being done with them, says Roberts. Even after the African-American Affairs Commission threw up its hands in 2008, Hartford Police continued to compile statistics through February 2009 before ending its efforts, according to Roberts.

Lawlor, who says he was skeptical of transferring responsibility to the African-American Affairs Commission in the first place, holds Cassis accountable for not asking for the money he needed to analyze the data.

“It turns out the commission never once asked for an appropriation to do it,” says Lawlor.

Because the Penn Act is state law, the Office of Policy and Management would have been required to include an appropriation in the governor’s budget for the African-American Affairs Commission to carry out its requirements, according to Lawlor. If the commission had only asked.

“It’s very unfortunate because I think it would be very useful to do this, very beneficial on lots of fronts to have that information,” says Lawlor.

In his defense, Cassis points out he met with the state appropriations committee two years ago and told them he was trying to raise money to fulfill the requirements of the Penn Act. No one said, “Why don’t you just come to us?” says Cassis.

And how about the governor’s office?

“The same governor’s office that tried to eliminate us?” says Cassis. “OK, I’ll connect with the governor’s office. I know what the answer is going to be, but I’ll do some investigating.”

* In the original version of this article, we stated that Matt Ritter will become a state representive. At the publishing date, Ritter is just a candidate for that office.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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